Data review shows many Ky. juveniles go to detention for a lack of better alternatives
Official: “Detention is ineffective. It’s expensive. And it produces even worse conduct. But that’s the first instinct: ‘Lock ‘em up!’”
By John Cheves
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At least 239 youths booked into Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers in 2022 weren’t the “significantly more violent” predators about whom Gov. Andy Beshear and legislators warn as they call for guards to be armed with tasers and pepper spray, according to a state database obtained by the Herald-Leader.
Instead, they were so-called “status offenders,” charged with minor, age-specific violations like truancy or running away from home. On average, they spent a week in custody, although five were locked up for a month or more in pre-trial detention.
“Unfortunately, sometimes, our prosecutorial team and judges feel it’s what has to be done. It’s a tough thing to have to do,” said McCracken County Attorney Cade Foster.
Foster’s county sent status offenders to juvenile detention 16 times in 2022.
And more than 100 youths held in juvenile detention last year were wards of the state, usually teenagers from broken homes who were assigned to caseworkers at the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services, according to a separate set of state records.
Experts say there is almost certainly crossover between the two groups — kids assigned to social workers who landed in lockup because of a lesser offense, such as fleeing foster care — but it’s impossible to say exactly how much. The youths’ names typically are kept confidential, making it impossible to cross-reference them.
Sad stories can be found in these numbers from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Last April, for example, a teen-aged boy in Boyd County was jailed in the Boyd Regional Juvenile Detention Center by mistake, according to state records.
The boy was the victim in an abuse and neglect case, not an offender. It was his mother who had legal problems.
But a district judge’s order to take the boy into custody and deliver him to DCBS apparently was misunderstood by police. By the time state officials realized the error and tracked him down, the boy was in the general population at the detention center alongside youths charged with crimes.
“DCBS did not know the youth had been found. (It) immediately sent a DCBS worker to the detention center to retrieve the youth,” according to the state’s Report of Detention Violation filed two days later.
The Boyd Regional Juvenile Detention Center, in Ashland, is not a desirable place for anyone to spend time, much less a child who did nothing wrong. During a riot at the facility in October, according to state records, some of the two dozen youths choked and attacked staff with a broom. One employee had the tip of a finger cut off.
The Boyd detention center director wrote to DJJ in Frankfort to blame the eruption at least in part on perilously low staffing: “Some staff are struggling to feel safe ... Even some residents are expressing concern for staff and wanting to retaliate.”
One girl, 54 rejections
In other instances last year, DCBS social workers said they wanted to get youths in their charge out of the juvenile detention centers for a more appropriate setting. But they struggled to find any openings in foster homes or private agencies, especially if the kids had mental illness or a history of misbehavior.
The phrase “can be released when placement is found” is repeated over and over in juveniles’ detention files.
A DCBS supervisor wrote in an email last June that she collected 54 rejections for a Madison County girl locked inside the Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center, from “therapeutic foster homes and qualified residential programs statewide.” The girl’s own relatives likewise refused to take her, the supervisor wrote.
“She is now a non-offender in detention,” a DJJ employee emailed a colleague. “A violation report ... will go up the DJJ chain because she is only being held for placement, not on the actual charge.”
The detention center could not simply set her free, officials said, because she was a minor, and there would be nobody at the front door to greet her and to be responsible for her.
“This has always been an issue,” said Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, a longtime children’s advocacy attorney in Kentucky.
“DJJ has kids who have served their time, as you could describe it, but DJJ has nowhere to put them. The release date arrives and there is not a placement for them,” DiLoreto said. “It would do the legislature well to study where exactly we are putting all of our kids in Kentucky. This is a deeper problem.”
One juvenile detention case in 2022, in Adair County, was a teenager with a 59 IQ, which is significant mental impairment.
A second case, a teen girl in Warren County, had a traumatic brain injury from being dropped on her head as a baby.
A third case, a teen boy in Fayette County, was left behind with expiring residency papers when his parents returned to Africa without him.
State records did not identify what landed those teens in juvenile detention.
‘Lock ‘em up!’
Kentucky’s problem isn’t just that its juvenile detention centers are plagued by violence among youths and staff and by the chronic neglect of youths in their cells for days on end, making them dangerous places to be, critics say.
It’s that many of their residents shouldn’t be there at all because they’re not the criminal threats to society for whom lockup is intended.
“Detention is ineffective. It is expensive. And it produces even worse conduct,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill. “But that’s the first instinct: ‘Lock ‘em up!’”
Westerfield repeatedly has tried to convince his fellow lawmakers to stop jailing status offenders. His Senate Bill 200, in 2014, did at least significantly increase the number of status complaints steered toward diversion programs rather than detention, according to a 2020 analysis by the Urban Institute.
“It’s terribly easy to be tough on crime. It’s very popular to be tough on everyone who breaks the law. You look like you’re the good guy, and it’s really easy to get carried away by that sort of mindset,” he added. “I get it. That’s what we’ve been doing decade after decade. It’s just that it doesn’t work.”
DiLoreto, the children’s advocacy attorney, said it’s not just politics. Past reform efforts also were thwarted by school districts, which view habitual truancy as a threat because their funding is tied to average daily attendance, she said.
And judges do not like it when anyone, even a minor, ignores their orders, she said. A teenager who disobeys a judicial order to stop skipping school easily can find himself locked behind a steel door, she said.
“The judges have a particular view about their authority, and they will not let it go when they feel disrespected,” DiLoreto said. “Their view is, ‘We always have contempt authority. That means we can always incarcerate.’”
One peer-reviewed study, published in 2020 in the journal Crime & Delinquency, showed a significant increase in recidivism among more than 46,000 juvenile cases involving pre-trial time spent in custody, even for minor offenses. Generally, locked-up youths are less likely to benefit from any deterrence than they are to suffer from poor living conditions, risky new relationships and the stigma of having been a state prisoner, according to the study.
However, none of the several juvenile justice measures advancing through the 2023 General Assembly this winter would end the practice of locking up status offenders.
The only legislation that would, House Bill 591, is sponsored by Rep. Derrick Graham of Frankfort, the top House Democrat. But in the Republican-majority legislature, Graham doesn’t have much clout. His bill has not moved as the session enters its final weeks.
‘Nobody wants to detain a runaway’
Officials with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department for Community Based Services declined to be interviewed for this article about the treatment of youths in their custody.
In a brief statement, a DJJ spokeswoman said her agency has no authority over which youths are sent to its detention centers or when they are released. The courts do that.
“DJJ does not have any control over which juveniles are detained,” spokeswoman Morgan Hall said. “Also, DJJ cannot release a juvenile back into the community without them being picked up by their legal guardian or DCBS caseworker. Releasing a minor without proper supervision would be irresponsible of DJJ.”
Christian County locked up 25 status offenders in 2022, more than any other county, including the far more populous and urban Jefferson and Fayette counties, according to the state database.
The most common charge was contempt of court, with an underlying charge of beyond control, bringing an average of 10 days in detention.
Most Christian County youths were sent to the McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center, a 90-minute drive to the west in Paducah. That facility, like the one in Boyd County, has experienced riots.
Christian District Judge John Lindsey Adams said he tries to avoid jailing status offenders whenever it’s possible. Adams said that he oversees one of the state’s last remaining juvenile drug courts, so he has a small population of youths whose behavior he closely tracks over an extended period.
“You very well could be seeing running away from home or beyond the control of the person exercising custodial control — lots and lots of different circumstances. One thing I definitely can tell you about that is that every case is driven by its individual circumstances, facts and merit,” Adams said.
Still, the judge rejected the idea of a ban on detention for status offenses.
There are times — such as when kids keep running away, putting themselves at risk — where locking them into a physically secured building looks like the only answer, at least in the short-term, he said.
“If you take that off the table, what are we supposed to do?” Adams asked. “Whether it’s me or a family court judge in some of those cases, what should you do with an habitual runaway? I promise you that nobody wants to detain a runaway.”