If Kentucky can't fix juvenile justice, will Washington do it? Advocates want real reform (2024)

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into Kentucky’s juvenile justice system comes at a critical moment.

The system's new commissioner has warned legislators that several new tough-on-crime laws will mean even more kids filling the state’s eight detention centers and one youth development center.

Those centers are the focal point of an investigation announced last month into potential violations of detainees' civil rights, including excessive use of force and isolation, and the threat of violence and sexual abuse.

Staffing has improved lately, and an unsettled leadership situation appears to have been resolved, but the state Department of Juvenile Justice is still working to implement changes after a blistering audit released earlier this year.

And at the center of it all: Hundreds of kids the DOJ said are in Kentucky’s detention centers every day, with Black children about 2.5 times more likely to be detained. The state's eight detention centers housed 238 children as of May, with more than 100 others in youth development facilities and group homes.

It’s a bleak situation, Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks said last month. But there’s a silver lining — a thorough federal investigation could bring a “road map” for a brighter future, he believes.

“This actually is a firm verdict that Kentucky leaders got an F when it came to juvenile justice, or Washington wouldn’t be here,” Brooks said. “I have every confidence that since Kentucky leaders couldn’t do it, the DOJ will.”

How we got here

In 2001, following five years under a federal consent decree, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno joined lawmakers in Frankfort to celebrate Kentucky's progress in fixing the state's juvenile justice department.

Amanda Mullins Bear, a Lexington juvenile attorney, can remember the years that followed. The Department of Juvenile Justice was unyielding and felt "kind of like the enemy" in the early days of her career, she recalled last month, but strong leadership from commissioners quickly helped foster a better relationship.

Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, and approved by the General Assembly in 2014, was key. That legislation sent more juvenile offenders charged with nonviolent status offenses into diversion programs instead of detention centers, saving the state significant money, and put more oversight measures in place to work with kids and track the effectiveness of programs.

If Kentucky can't fix juvenile justice, will Washington do it? Advocates want real reform (1)

Still, a lot can change in a decade's time.

"Often, when what I would consider a good piece of legislation like that happens, there's pushback, and they try to erode it little by little," Bear said. "I've kind of seen that as a trend in the last five to 10 years — and then they started to have a really bad turnover with their commissioners."

Turnover in leadership has been frequently cited as an issue plaguing the system. The Department of Juvenile Justice's current commissioner, Randy White, took office in April and is the sixth person to hold that role since 2018. The longtime Department of Corrections leader replaced Vicki Reed, who left the role at the end of 2023 and was a frequent target of criticism as the department struggled with staffing issues and excessive force allegations.

Management of the department is an issue that obviously predates White, Westerfield said. Turnover among commissioners has played into it, but "multiple gubernatorial administrations, for a long time" have failed to prioritize fixing the juvenile justice system despite repeated warnings in front of state committees, he said.

"We've seen improper use of restraints and detention and solitary confinement, withholding of medicine and food, withholding of showers. We've seen awful things that don't have anything to do with funding or money," Westerfield, a co-chair of the legislature's Juvenile Justice Oversight Council, told The Courier Journal.

"I've got a big bone to pick with this administration, and I think they've done a terrible job, but the last administration didn't do a great job either, and the administration before that didn't do a great job, and all of them are guilty of not prioritizing it."

The problems facing the system were laid out in a 231-page audit released earlier this year by state Auditor Allison Ball, a Republican who placed the blame on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

Those sentiments were echoed by several GOP lawmakers on the Senate floor after the audit's release in February, though Beshear at the time argued several points included in it were inaccurate, while pledging Kentucky officials "always want to do better."

The audit, released about three months before the DOJ announced its investigation, was scathing, with cited problems including:

  • Significant staffing shortages that put both kids and corrections officers at risk (staff issues are not unique to Kentucky's system, the report noted);

  • Excessive use of isolation as a punitive measure, with a reported 197 instances per month in 2023;

  • Excessive use of force without proper training, including 41 pepper spray deployments in 10 months at the high-security Adair County Juvenile Detention Center;

  • A lack of mental health professionals and nursing staffers;

  • Inconsistent, poorly implemented education services;

  • And a failure to heed similar warnings previously put forward in a 2017 audit.

The list of issues is long, and there have been documented cases of alleged misconduct — just last month a former juvenile corrections officer in Campbell County was arrested after failing to appear in court on charges he'd sexually abused a detainee a year ago.

But advocates say bigger issues facing the system aren’t a result of staff members who want to harm kids in custody. Instead, ongoing problems like low staffing, training issues and constant turnover laid the foundation for a juvenile justice system in crisis.

"I hate to always act like it's these mean guards that are just kid haters, because it's not the case," Bear said. "But when you start adding together we don't have enough staff and we don't pay them enough, so therefore we can't get enough, I think that's the obvious big problem."

Speaking earlier this month to the state legislature's Budget Review Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary, White said progress has been made on the hiring front.

Corrections officers now earn a starting salary of $50,000 (job postings list that figure at just over $39,000, but an additional $5.23 per hour is tacked on). That's a $20,000 increase from two years ago, according to a report White presented to legislators. And in turn, the department's staffing numbers have risen from 313 positions filled at the start of 2023 to 454 at the end of last month.

"When we lost staff, we also lost experience related to the management of our offenders and an inherit knowledge of detention," White, who was not made available for an interview with The Courier Journal, told committee members. "Not only has the increase in salary hired additional staff but it’s also retained staff. They’re staying with us longer. We still have challenges, but we’ve come a long way.”

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, told legislators last week that while issues exist within the system, corrections officers must feel safe at work or else they'll find a new job that doesn't involve dealing with "young men who are probably strong, who have gotten out of order and who, frankly, have resorted to violence at more than one time in their life."

"Money will go so far to get (staff) in the door, but if you have to worry about getting beat up incessantly, you’re not going to stay very long," McDaniel said.

The impact of new laws

Problems within the department have been known for years, and Kentucky leaders have pushed for improvement. But some bills passed in recent years are likely to put more strain on the system.

Several were approved after the high-profile riot at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center in late 2022, where staff and kids housed at the center were attacked by other detainees and a girl on site was allegedly sexually assaulted. One suspect in that case, Malachi Amir Price, was charged as an adult (he was 17 at the time of the riot) and is scheduled to go to trial this fall.

In 2023, House Bill 3 put money toward reopening the Louisville Youth Detention Center, which closed amid city budget issues in 2019, but called for automatic detention of kids charged with violent crimes, a clause set to go into effect next month.

Senate Bill 162, meanwhile, put more funding in the system but called for a return to a regional model where kids in custody are sent to detention centers closest to their home, a reversal of a 2022 policy change put in place by Beshear that was aimed at separating boys and girls and housing detainees based on the level of their alleged offense.

It's a costly mandate that the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said will be "extraordinarily difficult to meet" without additional funding for two new detention facilities for girls. Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, filed Senate Bill 242 this winter to fund the transition back to a regional model and build several new facilities, but it stalled in the House after passing unanimously in the Senate.

Two bills that did pass this year — House Bill 5, known as the wide-ranging "Safer Kentucky Act," and Senate Bill 20 — expand the definition of violent crime and enhance penalties for some crimes while also requiring kids who use guns in a crime be charged as adults, a move that White and the cabinet believe will put more juveniles in detention centers for longer periods of time.

Failing to pass Carroll's bill was a "huge mistake," Westerfield said. But it wasn't the legislature's worst move.

"I think passing bills like Senate Bill 20 is an even bigger mistake," he said. "It is a well-intentioned, awful, uninformed piece of legislation that will result in increased detention and harsher penalties for juveniles, even when the juvenile shouldn't be treated more harshly, because of politics. That's really it. It's because of politics. That's how the bill passed, and that's why it's not going to get repealed any time soon."

If Kentucky can't fix juvenile justice, will Washington do it? Advocates want real reform (3)

The Beshear administration isn't blameless, Brooks said. The Kentucky Youth Advocates leader said collaboration between the governor's office and the legislature that had been more frequent under former Govs. Matt Bevin and Steve Beshear isn't working as well as it used to.

But he echoed Westerfield — too often, influences in local and national politics have made juvenile justice a "convenient policy for cheap political wins" in the General Assembly. Add in inadequate funding in the budget, he said, and it's easy to see cracks in the foundation.

"Just this past session there were two or three very imaginative proposals, and they didn't get traction," Brooks said. "If you look at some of the legislation in the last couple of years that has passed, it has nothing to do with research or evidence or the track record in Kentucky. It has to do with grabbing headlines that play to a particular political base"

What comes next

Where the federal investigation into Kentucky's juvenile detention centers will lead is unclear. The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet earlier this week said department leaders have met with DOJ officials once since last month's announcement.

But don't expect it to wrap up overnight. Similar investigations have taken years to complete.

The department's first investigation into Kentucky juvenile centers began in February 1995 and moved forward with a consent decree nine months later, with federal oversight ending in 2001.

In New York, a DOJ probe looking into potential civil rights violations with kids at four residential facilities led to a consent decree in July 2010 that remained in place for more than seven years.

And findings still haven't been released from an investigation into conditions at five Texas juvenile correctional facilities launched in October 2021.

Still, Westerfield feels "a bit optimistic" about the next steps. When the federal government steps in, "that typically whips people into shape — a good old-fashioned jerking-a-knot-in-your-tail reaction."

"I'm hopeful that this sort of scrutiny might lead to some real change and productive change," he said. "Not just tougher facilities and more pepper spray and more training on how to use nonlethal restraints and holds, but more staff, more programming and better facilities, and critically, facility management, so that we have a functional DJJ that not only keeps the community safe but, I think most importantly, helps these kids not become career offenders."

From Laura Landenwich's viewpoint, the Feds have their work cut out for them. The Louisville lawyer has had an up-close look at some of the department's issues in a class-action lawsuit she and two other local attorneys have filed against the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice and several officials with the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center, alleging kids at the understaffed center are kept in isolation too often and are frequently mistreated by guards.

It starts with training, she said. The audit found current training methods are PowerPoint-heavy, with less of an emphasis on hands-on activities, and are inconsistent between centers. Pepper spray was deployed to corrections officers last year, but corrections officers weren't trained on its use at that time.

Last week, White said all officers have since undergone training, and he's "seen the appropriate penalties levied upon staff members" who misuse it.

"Any time you put someone in a position of authority in a prison-type setting without any training, you are guaranteed that you have bad outcomes," Landenwich said. "... It's just sort of unthinkable how anyone thought that was a solution and not a bigger problem."

Bear, the Lexington juvenile attorney, hopes the investigation takes a closer look at mental health services afforded to kids in state care and ensures a mental health practitioner is assigned to each detention center.

"These are kids who are in the greatest need of having mental health services," she said. "Not only would it help the kids, but also for de-escalation purposes, because when you have a short staff and staff who aren't trained, who are not educated on how to deal with kids or de-escalation, and you have kids with all these behavioral problems, that's going to be a recipe for disaster."

Reach Lucas Aulbach at laulbach@courier-journal.com.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky juvenile justice DOJ investigation has advocates optimistic

If Kentucky can't fix juvenile justice, will Washington do it? Advocates want real reform (2024)

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