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Amid federal investigation, Kentucky’s juvenile justice department warns of likely influx

Randy White, the recently appointed commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Juvenile Justice, spoke on capacity concerns before lawmakers during the 2024 interim session on June 5.
Sylvia Goodman
/
LPM
Randy White, the recently appointed commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Juvenile Justice, spoke on capacity concerns before lawmakers during the 2024 interim session on June 5.

The new commissioner for the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice warned lawmakers Wednesday that an influx of youth sent to juvenile detention facilities could burden an already overtaxed system.

The state’s youth detention centers have long struggled to ensure the safety of the hundreds of kids in their care, in part due to severe staffing shortages.

Recently appointed Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Randy White told lawmakers Wednesday that, while the department has made gains in recruitment in the last year, the problem could get worse.

Thanks to several bills from the last two legislative sessions, the number of Kentucky youth sent to DJJ detention facilities could increase dramatically.

DJJ facilities held nearly 240 kids as of the end of May, White said. While that doesn’t put them at max capacity, ensuring the safety of the kids and staff is already challenging. An influx would further strain the system, including programs that try to divert children from detainment.

“We think we can manage the influx,” White said, “but it's going to be a squeeze. It's going to be a challenge.”

Last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 3, which requires the renovation and reopening of Louisville area detention facilities. It also requires that all youth charged with violent crimes be automatically detained before their hearing.

If that law had been in effect in 2022, DJJ facilities would have needed to house more than 400 additional kids, White said.

On top of that, this year lawmakers also expanded the state’s definition of a violent offense to include several attempted offenses and crimes like wanton endangerment, using a gun or burglary if another person is in the building. The result will likely be more kids in detention centers.

“It will challenge us financially. We're going to have to take a look at our budgets and try to predict what that cost increase is going to look like,” White said. “Additionally, it's going to put more offenders on the ground within the facilities that we have to manage day in and day out.”

DJJ already has plenty of challenges as it is. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the eight juvenile detention facilities. The state-run centers have long faced safety and health concerns, including that children were frequently held in lengthy periods of isolation and were not adequately protected from other detainees. The DOJ also pointed to some concerns of excessive use of force and sexual abuse of detained kids.

In response to a number of troubling incidents — including one where male inmates broke into the girl’s section of the facility and raped another detainee in 2022 — Gov. Andy Beshear decided to equip juvenile corrections officers with pepper spray and tasers. The Herald-Leader reported on the misuse of the spray and the light reprimands guards received.

In response to criticism and investigations of excessive force in juvenile facilities, GOP Sen. Chris McDaniels from Ryland Heights said at the hearing that staff shouldn’t be afraid to “maintain order.”

“Probably the majority of the population you deal with are 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,” McDaniels said. “So if they have to deal with some pepper spray, possibly if they have to deal with electronic means of tasers — which you've not had to use yet — to keep order in these facilities, those sometimes are the types of things we have to do if we want to keep people safe.”

The governor and legislature have also required the separation of kids by gender and level of offense. But the separation means that kids are frequently shipped to distant parts of the state away from their families and lawyers. For example, there is only one female-only facility in Boyd County in eastern Kentucky and status offenders aren’t housed in a different facility from kids who committed a violent offense.

White said keeping those children separate will likely become even more difficult as facilities reach capacity.

“[This] mandate will be extraordinarily difficult to meet given the relatively small capacity of each detention center and the limitations of aging physical facilities not designed for these circumstances,” White said.

The legislature failed to pass a proposal this year to fund two new girls' facilities and a high acuity mental health center for kids with extreme behavioral health issues.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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