FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A group of Kentucky lawmakers called for new leadership Thursday in the state's troubled juvenile justice agency, saying someone from outside the system should be brought in to make changes to quell violent outbursts in the youth detention centers.
The legislators also pushed for independent reviews of the juvenile detention system, including unfettered access to agency employees they said is needed to get a full picture of the problems.
“The people of Kentucky have lost confidence in the folks that are running the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes said at a statehouse news conference.
The lawmakers presented the recommendations after spending the past month reviewing problems within a system struggling to house increasing numbers of youths charged with violent offenses. The result has been a string of assaults, riots and escapes, some of which were not disclosed until later, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, which has reported extensively on the problems.
The issue is expected to be at the forefront when the GOP-led legislature resumes its session next week after a monthlong break. One lawmaker previewed a proposal to allocate millions of dollars to upgrade a building that could become a detention center in Louisville, the state's largest city.
The lawmakers praised actions already taken by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to try to shore up safety and overcome staffing shortages at juvenile detention centers. But they said more needs to be done, topped by leadership changes within the juvenile justice department.
“We need to bring someone in from the outside who can serve as a change agent to change the culture within DJJ," said Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll.
Beshear hired current DJJ commissioner Vicki Reed in 2021 after firing her predecessor. The governor on Thursday expressed confidence in her commitment to "getting it fixed.”
“What I have seen of our current commissioner is she wants to make these changes," Beshear said at his weekly news conference. "She wants to make these facilities safe. And we’re going to ensure that the resources and the opportunities are there.”
The lawmakers also said a tracking notification system is needed within the agency, to automatically notify parents and law enforcement of a detained youth’s location. The need for such a system was reinforced when law enforcement showed up at a detention center to pick up a youth, only to find out that the youth was at another facility, said GOP state Rep. Kevin Bratcher.
Outside inspections of the agency are needed and should include complete access to department staff, who should be reassured there'll be no retribution for speaking candidly, the lawmakers said.
“A lot of self-preservation seems to be going on within DJJ,” Carroll said.
Beshear said later that he would support a review if it's “done the right way, in a nonpolitical way” and leads to information that improves the system.
“What we have to commit to if we’re going to do that, is actually take some of the actions to address the challenges that it brings forth," he said. "And not just to have it to say it and then (legislative) session after session after session it not be acted upon.”
The back-and-forth between lawmakers and Beshear's administration comes as the state-run juvenile detention system has been plagued by a rash of violence.
A riot broke out last year at one detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded. Order was restored after state police troopers and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. At another juvenile detention center, a riot broke out when some youths choked and attacked staff with a broom, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. More recently, three juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at a detention center.
Beshear responded with policy changes late last year, announcing that male juveniles will be assigned to facilities based on the severity of their offenses. Three high-security juvenile detention centers have been designated to house teenage male offenders charged with serious crimes.
“We’ve ensured now that a 17-year-old youth who is charged with capital murder is not in the same building or sitting right next to a 13-year-old charged with contempt of court for truancy,” the governor said Thursday.
Also, Kentucky State Police personnel will be placed at the three high-security facilities until staffing levels and training reach the point where the KSP presence isn’t necessary, he said. His actions also included opening the state’s first female-only juvenile detention center.
Last month, the governor announced an increase in starting pay for detention center staff. And in a big policy change, “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and tasers — will be provided for the first time so detention center workers can defend themselves and others if attacked. Other changes include hiring a director of security and adding a compliance division to ensure best practices are followed systemwide within the juvenile justice agency.