Kentucky juvenile facilities have issues with force, staffing, report says

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s juvenile justice system has lingering problems with the use of force and isolation techniques and has done little to implement a 2017 state audit’s suggestions for improvement, according to a report released Wednesday.

The new report from Kentucky Auditor Allison Ball says the state's juvenile detention centers lack clear policies concerning the use of isolation cells, Tasers and pepper spray, and have significant staffing problems. It also found that Department of Juvenile Justice staffers were using pepper spray at a rate nearly 74 times higher than it is used in adult federal prisons.

A federal lawsuit filed earlier this month alleges that two teen girls were kept in isolation cells for weeks in unsanitary conditions at a youth facility in Adair County in 2022. That same year, the detention center was the site of a riot that began when a juvenile assaulted a staff member. Another federal lawsuit was filed this week by a woman who said that as a 17-year-old, she spent a month in an isolation cell at the Adair facility in 2022.

The auditor's review was requested last year by state lawmakers.

"The state of the Department of Juvenile Justice has been a concern across the Commonwealth and a legislative priority over the past several years,” Ball said in a statement Wednesday.

Ball blamed Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's administration for “disorganization across facilities, and as a result, the unacceptably poor treatment of Kentucky youth.” Beshear earlier this month criticized a Kentucky House budget proposal for lacking funding for new female-only juvenile justice centers.

The auditor's report, labeled a “performance assessment,” found that the Juvenile Justice department's “practices for isolation are inconsistently defined, applied and in conflict with nationally-recognized best practices.” The department's use of force policies are also “poorly deployed and defined,” it said.

The report said the findings from the 2017 audit have largely not been addressed, including concerns of overuse of solitary confinement, low medical care standards and the poor quality of the policy manual.

Beshear initiated a new state policy for juvenile offenders last year that places male juveniles charged with serious crimes in a high-security facility. The policy replaced a decades-old regional system that put juveniles in facilities based on where they live.