Lawmakers call for investigation, new leadership at KY juvenile justice agency

Police and paramedics responded to a riot at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Nov. 11. (Sharon Burton/Adair Community Voice)

An independent party should be allowed to inspect Kentucky’s violence-plagued juvenile detention centers and speak freely with the staff and youths, a panel of lawmakers said Thursday.

The legislature’s Juvenile Justice Work Group, which has met in recent weeks, announced recommendations at a Capitol news conference. Among them, it called for leadership changes at the state Department of Juvenile Justice and an audit of the agency.

An outside trustee should be named as a receiver to supervise the rebuilding of DJJ, just as a bankruptcy trustee is named to restructure a failed company, they said.

“The people of Kentucky have lost confidence in the folks that run the Department of Juvenile Justice,” said state Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, a member of the work group.

Gov. Andy Beshear hired the current DJJ commissioner, Vicki Reed, in 2021 after firing her predecessor. The department rotated through five different commissioners from 2016 until Reed’s appointment.

Later on Thursday, the governor told reporters that he stands behind Reed, whom he believes is committed to improving the department. Reed has spent her career working to reform the juvenile justice system from the inside, as a DJJ employee climbing the ranks, and the outside, as an advocate for youths at nonprofit groups, he said.

“My goal is to get this fixed. And I want somebody who is completely vested in getting it fixed,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he would welcome an outside review of the department if it is fair and nonpartisan.

However, he added, in 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy of Washington, D.C. issued a sharply critical report about DJJ’s shortcomings, including under-staffing and a lack of mental health services, which then-Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration largely ignored.

Lawmakers will ask state Auditor Mike Harmon in coming days to select a qualified outside firm that can conduct a performance audit of DJJ, said Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, a member of the work group. An audit can identify structural or cultural flaws inside the agency that need to be addressed, Givens said.

“We want to assist them in getting this right,” Givens said.

Beshear’s budget office has drafted a list of DJJ spending requests for the legislature, including $26 million in capital funds this fiscal year and $20 million in recurring operating funds starting next fiscal year. The money would pay for higher salaries, more staff, stronger physical security at the facilities and the design of two new detention centers.

All three branches of state government share blame for problems at the juvenile detention facilities, Beshear said. While the executive branch is responsible for safely running DJJ, the legislative branch failed to keep state salaries competitive and state jobs filled, and the judicial branch has continued to send some relatively minor offenders to juvenile detention despite a 2014 law meant to end the practice, he said.

The lawmakers created their work group after a series of assaults, escapes and riots last year at juvenile justice facilities around the state, some of which were not disclosed until later, once the news media reported on them. A common problem among the facilities is a chronic lack of staffing, which state officials openly acknowledge.

The Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green has seen two separate attacks on employees by youths in recent days, one of which required law enforcement to intervene.

The legislative work group has spoken with officials from the Beshear administration as well as DJJ employees, some of whom said they feared for their jobs if they spoke candidly about conditions inside the facilities, lawmakers said.

“We must have access to all the employees,” Nemes said.

“Now, the governor says that he’s not standing in the way of access,” Nemes said. “OK. But what the staff tell us is that they don’t feel comfortable, that they feel their ability to speak with us is hindered. So we want the governor to say to his staff in a written document or some formal way, ‘You can speak to whomever wants to speak with you, there will be no repercussions.’”

The Beshear administration also should provide mental health treatment for DJJ staff and youths who have suffered physical and emotional trauma inside the facilities, and it should create a tracking system so that families, guardians and lawyers can locate youths, who sometimes are transferred around the state, lawmakers recommended.

Lawmakers on Thursday credited Beshear with making some changes they proposed, such as placing Kentucky State Police inside the three juvenile detention centers — in Fayette, Adair and Warren counties — that hold youths charged with the most serious offenses.

State police will remain inside those detention centers to assist until the facilities are fully staffed, Beshear said.

Also, Beshear has ordered that youths be segregated into different detention centers by gender and by the severity of their offenses, a move that lawmakers praised. And he authorized pepper spray, tasers and a pay raise for youth workers in the detention centers, taking their starting salaries up to $50,000, in hopes of recruiting more people to the job.

The lawmakers said they also want to see a juvenile detention center reopened in Louisville that could handle the dozens of youths charged with serious offenses at any given time in Kentucky’s largest city. The state is in talks with new Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg about establishing such a center, they said.

Greenberg’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Louisville Metro Government closed its juvenile detention center in 2020, citing budget cuts. The facility that DJJ opened in the Louisville suburb of Lyndon as a replacement proved physically inadequate, with security flaws and potential fire hazards.

The state temporarily closed the facility for upgrades, sending Jefferson County youths elsewhere around the state, where they sometimes caused problems. It only recently started to reopen the building, unit by unit, to the system’s youngest and lowest severity offenders. But lawmakers said that Louisville needs a detention center that can house older, high-security offenders.

‘Struggling to feel safe.’ Reports reveal chaos inside KY juvenile justice facilities

Insiders warned of ‘stomach-turning’ abuse in KY juvenile facility in months before riot