Kentucky’s juvenile detention system still struggling with ‘critical staffing issues’

Some groups are being moved in response to understaffing in Campbell County


FRANKFORT — Despite salary increases, persistent understaffing is forcing a shuffling of Kentucky juveniles being held in detention.

The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice plans to move girls from a detention center in Campbell County to one in Boyd County for an estimated 90 days in response to staffing difficulties. 

The boys being held in Boyd County will be moved to Breathitt County while staffing recruitment continues at Campbell County. The Northern Kentucky center is the only facility for females in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system. 

During his weekly news conference, Gov. Andy Beshear said the temporary move was because of “critical staffing issues.” 

He also warned that the state’s current system cannot safely house extra juveniles who may be detained under legislation set to take effect next year.  The new law requires juveniles charged with any of 15 violent felonies to be detained before their detention hearing for up to 48 hours to receive a mental health assessment. 

 Andy Beshear (Photo by Arden Barnes)

Beshear said probation and parole officers from the Department of Corrections have been volunteering on their days off to “help keep the Campbell Youth Detention Center safe and secure. They provide a crucial assistance and we cannot thank them enough. Unfortunately, our staffing numbers there are nowhere near where they need to be,” he said, especially in light of “significant needs” among the juveniles housed there.

The Campbell County site will be used as a short-term holding and drop off facility, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Kerry Harvey told the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee in Frankfort Thursday.

“We have more staff there (at Campbell County) than we did, but we still are struggling,” Harvey said. “We’ve been holding it together by sending DJJ employees from other detention centers to work shifts there.” 

But, he pointed out: “That’s not sustainable over the long haul.” 

“That’s not something that we want to do,” Harvey said. “As you manage these populations. You’re going to have to call an audible every once in a while to meet the changing circumstances. And that’s what we’re doing here.” 

‘Stubborn’ but improving staffing issues

Though understaffing in Kentucky’s DJJ system has “remained stubborn,” interest has increased, officials told a legislative committee Thursday. 

As of June 14, there were 350 filled positions — an increase from 313 on Jan. 1 and 327 on March 29.

As of Thursday, there were 37 vacant correctional officer (security) positions in juvenile detention facilities, a spokesperson for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet told the Lantern.

The increase in workers comes after concerted efforts to increase staff at youth detention centers, including a 10% raise in 2021 and an 8% increase in 2022. Starting pay was raised to $50,000.

Additionally, the General Assembly appropriated $30 million in 2023 to get Department of Corrections correctional officers in adult prisons to a salary of $50,000. 

“The trendline is good,” Harvey said. “We’re improving. We’re now at compensation levels that are competitive for the moment.” 

But he warned that the numbers may fluctuate. 

“Labor markets are not static,” Harvey said. “They always move. … I hope we will all work together to make sure that we don’t fall behind again because we’ve seen the consequences of that.” 

One of the fallouts of staffing shortages, Commissioner Vicki Reed said, is that kids can exploit that and act out. When there aren’t enough staff, Reed said, it “creates a ripple effect that goes through our entire system.” 

“They know when we’re short staffed; they are very astute,” she said. “Superintendents tell me that they’ll know in their cell who’s coming on duty by the sound of their footsteps. And they know  … it’s easier to create a diversion. They know the staff are going to be slower to respond.” 

Why the focus on juvenile justice now? 

Kentucky lawmakers and political leaders have been focused on juvenile justice issues this year after reports of heightened violence in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers. Republicans have also criticized Beshear’s administration for the understaffing and other problems in Kentucky’s centers. 

Beshear previously announced the establishment of the girls’ facility in December

Boys in the Boyd facility will be transferred to Breathitt Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Beshear said those facilities have the space and staffing to support the juveniles. 

Campbell and Boyd counties are about a two-and-a-half hour drive from one another. Breathitt County is about a two hour drive from Boyd County. He said his administration will work closely with law enforcement officials to assist with transportation.

“This is a step that no one wants to have to take, to move juveniles to different facilities, but this is our best opportunity to provide the most safety for them and for the staff,” the governor said. “And no one would want to see a bad outcome in Campbell County because of our current staffing issues.”

Lawmakers passed several bills aimed at addressing the issues, including maintaining workers’ salaries and requiring juveniles charged with violent crimes to be detained for 48 hours so they can access mental health services. The mandatory hold takes effect in July 2024. 

Some worry the 48-hold, which was part of House Bill 3, which doesn’t include weekends or holidays, could result in youth being detained much longer than intended. The General Assembly passed the bill and Beshear signed it. 

Recently, the General Assembly’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Council was informed that if the legislation had been in effect in 2022, an additional 415 juveniles would have been automatically sent to a juvenile detention center after their arrests for violent felonies and before their detention hearings. That year, 1,162 juveniles were detained at that point in the process. The decisions to  release at intake are made by law enforcement officers, court designated workers or judges. HB 3 will end their discretion in the decisions.

When asked if he thought the legislature should reconsider the mandatory hold, Beshear said the current system cannot safely hold an extra 400 or 450 juveniles with its current staffing. 

“At some point, the policy has to meet the reality of your ability to serve these juveniles in a safe and responsible way. … This is an ongoing challenge,” Beshear said. “We haven’t seen the last work from the legislature. We’re going to continue to brief and work with them. And it’s going to be important for us to very clearly express the capacity that we have, that we may have in the future.”

Photo: Adobe Stock