Kentucky to run three high-security juvenile detention centers
Trend of violence from some "significantly more violent" male teen offenders is made worse by severe staffing shortage
By Bruce Schreiner
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky soon will operate three high-security juvenile detention centers designated to house teenage male offenders charged with serious crimes, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday in taking the next steps intended to bring security problems under control.
The Democratic governor last week announced plans to revamp Kentucky’s troubled juvenile detention system by assigning male teens to facilities based on the severity of their offenses.
It comes as the state-operated system struggles to quell violent outbursts by some juveniles — a trend exacerbated by a severe staffing shortage at detention centers. A riot broke out last month at one detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded.
As the governor filled in more details of his plan to overhaul the juvenile detention system, high-ranking members of his administration provided an update to lawmakers at a committee meeting.
Beshear announced Thursday that the facilities to be given the high-security designation are the Adair Regional Detention Center, Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center and Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Those centers, he said, will house male juveniles ages 14 and older who are charged with violent or other serious offenses.
“At the higher-level facilities, we can really amp up our security, and that will make everyone safer," the governor said at his weekly news conference.
Four facilities will house male juveniles younger than 14 or those charged with lower-level offenses — Boyd Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Breathitt Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center and McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
The new classification system reflects a sobering new reality — that the male population being held in the state's juvenile detention system has become “significantly more violent,” the governor said.
"We have to change for the safety of everybody involved,” he said.
It will replace a decades-old regional system that placed juveniles in detention facilities based on where they live. For a system now dealing with more violent youths, that regional model can result in a juvenile charged with murder being housed next to someone held for truancy, Beshear said.
The target date for the change is January of next year.
In another policy shift, the governor recently ordered that the state open its first female-only juvenile detention center in Campbell County to better protect females placed in detention.
In November, several young people and staff were wounded in the disturbance at the detention center in Adair County. It began when a juvenile assaulted a staff member, took the employee’s keys and released other young people from their cells, state police said. Order was restored after state police troopers and other law enforcement officers entered the facility in south-central Kentucky.
In October, there was a riot at the juvenile detention center in Ashland — previously undisclosed to the public — where some of the two dozen youths choked and attacked staff with a broom, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. One employee had the tip of a finger cut off during the riot.
Juveniles held at state detention centers receive education, counseling and recreational opportunities. But the outbreaks of violence have caused disruptions in those services.
Lawmakers said Thursday they want to hear more details from Beshear's administration on how to resolve the security problems. Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a leading voice on juvenile justice issues, later described the violence as “a disturbing set of circumstances.”
“I still have concerns about staffing levels, and if it all boils down to not having good staff or adequate pay, we’ve got to spend some money there," Westerfield told reporters.
At his news conference, Beshear said pay raises for state employees should be “on the table” in the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January. The governor said his message to lawmakers has been that the juvenile-related actions he's announced are “immediate steps we need to take.” He said he will welcome "any and all input by the General Assembly” for additional steps.
As of Wednesday, the Department of Juvenile Justice had 171 male juveniles housed in detention centers across the state. Among them, 82 have been charged with violent or serious offenses, the governor’s office said in a news release. Meanwhile, the department is trying to fill more than 105 full-time jobs throughout the detention center system, the release said.
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.