Ky. officials ask lawmakers for $45M, new laws to fix juvenile justice system
State officials said it’s time to ban the detention of youths who are charged with minor status offenses and Class B misdemeanors
By John Cheves
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration is asking lawmakers for about $45 million as well as changes to state law to help fix Kentucky’s troubled Department of Juvenile Justice.
On Tuesday, state officials told a House budget subcommittee that it’s time for the General Assembly to ban the detention of youths who are charged with minor status offenses — such as habitual truancy and habitual runaway — and Class B misdemeanors.
Lawmakers tried to end the practice of jailing low-level juvenile offenders in 2014 with Senate Bill 2014, but some judges have resisted. As of Jan. 10, there were 33 youths charged with a Class B misdemeanor or less serious offenses inside the state’s juvenile detention centers.
Lawmakers also should change the law to allow youths who are charged with more serious crimes, known as public offenders, to be considered for pre-trial release on bail just as adults are, state officials said.
“If there is a youth who is being tried as an adult, they get bail. But a youth who is not being tried as an adult does not get bail,” state budget director John Hicks explained to the House panel with financial oversight of the justice system.
And Hicks and DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed asked for about $45 million over the next two years for pay raises for youth workers at the juvenile detention centers, to promote recruitment and retention; to hire more staff overall; to increase physical security, such as perimeter fencing and security posts at entrances; to start the planning process to build two more detention centers; and to make other improvements.
Youth workers at the state’s eight detention centers were starting at $30,000 a year ago, but few people were applying for the job, Hicks said. After a series of raises approved by Beshear and the legislature, the starting salary this month leaped to $50,000, which hopefully will prove more attractive, he said.
The Beshear administration is also requesting $30 million a year to raise the starting salaries for corrections officers at state prisons to $50,000, matching the salaries for youth workers at detention centers.
“Being the budget director, I can assure you — the money’s there,” Hicks told the lawmakers.
The committee chairman, Rep. Patrick Flannery, R- Olive Hill, did not make any promises. The House Judiciary Committee is expected on Wednesday to hear a GOP proposal, House Bill 3, that would make some of its own changes to the juvenile justice system, including the reopening of a juvenile detention center in downtown Louisville for $8.9 million.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Flannery told reporters that he supports the Beshear administration’s efforts to help youth workers in the juvenile detention centers to defend themselves with pepper spray and tasers and with training from Department of Corrections employees who manage adult inmates.
“We do need to do several things to correct what is going on as far as helping the employees to become safer and finding ways to make the system work. It’s been very broken recently,” Flannery said. “I think people have a right to protect themselves.”
Beshear, who stands for re-election in November, has been on the defensive in recent months following riots and assaults at several DJJ facilities around the state.
The Herald-Leader has reported that chronic under-staffing at DJJ for years has resulted in an atmosphere of violence and neglect, with both employees and youths saying that they don’t feel safe. In some cases, facilities have kept youths locked up in their cells as a management tool.