Following a recent string of violent incidents at several of Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice detention facilities — including the reported sexual assault of a girl in state custody — Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Thursday plans to create a girls-only facility.
Starting this month, girls aged 11 to 18 from across the commonwealth will be housed in the Campbell Regional Juvenile Detention Center in the Northern Kentucky city of Newport.
The center has 35 beds, and Beshear said about 20 girls are currently in DJJ detention centers.
Beshear stated on Thursday that charges among juveniles placed in the state’s detention centers “are more violent than we’ve ever seen,” adding that close to half have been charged with at least a C-level felony. He noted an increased number of riots in the facilities of late as well, which he said led to the sexual assault.
“What we’ve also seen are crimes against our female juveniles that have occurred during some of these riots or violent encounters. While our female juveniles are in separate parts, and we attempt to make them secure parts of these facilities, that is not enough,” Beshear said.
Following a November riot at an Adair County facility, the Kentucky State Police are investigating a reported sexual assault in the females-only wing of the facility. The incident also left DJJ staff members injured.
Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, an attorney and longtime child advocate, said she sees some potential positives from the move, including the opportunity to hire a primarily female staff and reduce the number of adult males who have contact with the girls.
A 2021 Herald-Leader investigation found two separate incidents of male youth workers escorting girls to the shower room and waiting at the door despite their protests and in violation of department policy.
But in addition to raising concerns about where transgender youth will be held, DiLoreto cautioned that separating males and females could provide a “false sense of security.”
“If you talk about sexual abuse, you’re talking about a power play rather than desire,” she said. “That can and has likely happened male-on-male or female-on-female. ... So it’s critical not to assume this removes those concerns.”
Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks called the creation of an all-girls facility a smart, common-sense move, but warned it’s not a cure-all.
“I hope this announcement is not seen as a silver bullet, but maybe a catalyst to make us ask a bevy of additional questions,” Brooks said. “We as a state, and especially the administration and the General Assembly, need to have a robust discussion as to the purpose of detention in Kentucky. ... There’s a real threat of regressive juvenile justice policy coming out of the General Assembly.”
In addition to preventing “wrongheaded policies” from advancing in Frankfort, Brooks also said he’d like to see juvenile justice discussed in the 2023 gubernatorial race.
“That is generally not a hot topic in a governor’s race, but it needs to be in 2023 because that’s moving to a crisis kind of a state,” he said.
Beshear said during the press conference that changes must also take place to ensure that DJJ staff remains safe and that the department is able to recruit workers.
“The model that we’ve been following is one that, based on the population that we are serving and what we are seeing, is outdated. It is not providing the type of safety either for the workers... (and) it does not create a safe environment for the juveniles,” Beshear said.
The governor added that while housing girls from all across the state in Northern Kentucky might cause “some travel issues,” he believes it is “an essential step to protect these individuals” and that the state is working to address those travel concerns for the detained girls’ loved ones.
DiLoreto also raised concerns about the girls having limited access to their attorneys and families, similar to what happened when Louisville Metro Government shut down its city-run youth detention center at the end of 2019 following budget cuts. The city’s decision has resulted in Louisville kids being housed at facilities across the state.
“We’re going to see girls moved to Campbell County and they’re not going to see their lawyers,” she said. “The public defender’s office is so strapped with resources, those attorneys are not going to drive all the way to Campbell County from different parts of the state to see their clients.”
In addition to guaranteeing that girls have confidential access to their attorneys, DiLoreto also recommended the state look at further limiting the use of pretrial detention and detention for contempt of court.
“In this COVID time, the visits with family are already so limited,” she said. “Families serve a point of accountability with (the) incarceration system, because if a family sees that their children or their loved ones, adult or juvenile, are being harmed, they’re going to speak out. Well, if instead, a kid is four hours from home, that’s not going to happen.”
The ACLU of Kentucky echoed those concerns in a series of tweets Thursday.
“Isolating girls in northern Kentucky – 5 hours from some parts of the state – will create numerous logistical challenges for staff and the detained children, their families, counsel, and communities,” the advocacy group said.
More significant changes to the juvenile detention system in Kentucky could be announced as early as next week, Beshear said.
Brooks, speaking about the 2023 legislative session, said he hopes lawmakers focus on “being smart about youth crime,” not “tough but poorly informed.”
Brooks said the emphasis should be on making sure the use of detention is “very rare and very focused.” For the kids who are detained, he said they should be given access to robust mental, behavioral and educational support, and their families should be engaged in the process.
“Unfortunately, the role of detention is a convenient cop out to those tough on crime folks, that they sort of lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” he said. “What those people do not seem to understand is those young people who get locked up and their keys get thrown away, they’re going to be coming back into those local communities.
“And so we’re either going to work turn those young people — who have made mistakes — we’re going to help turn them around or we’re just going to create the next decade of problems with the broader criminal justice system.”