Lawmakers call for investigation, new leadership at Ky. juvenile justice agency

A series of assaults, escapes and riots occurred last year at juvenile justice facilities around the state

By John Cheves
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — 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 outside 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. His office had no immediate comment Thursday on the work group’s recommendations.

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.

Most recently, 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 lawmakers on Thursday credited Beshear with making some changes they recommended, such as placing Kentucky State Police inside the three juvenile detention centers that house youths charged with the most severe offenses.

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 on Thursday. And he authorized a large 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.

RELATED: 'Stomach-turning’ abuse reported at Ky. juvenile facility months before riot

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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