Lawmakers approve big changes to Ky. juvenile justice system
The juvenile justice bills ended up with bipartisan support, praised by outside observers
By John Cheves
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before starting a two-week break on March 16, the Kentucky legislature sent two bills to Gov. Andy Beshear that would spend tens of millions of dollars while making several changes to how the state runs its juvenile detention centers, where riots, assaults and chronic neglect of youths in their cells have become commonplace.
Unlike some other measures during the legislative session, the juvenile justice bills ended up with bipartisan support, praised by outside observers.
“There has seldom been such a transformative process around a major policy arena than what we have seen around juvenile justice in the 2023 General Assembly,” Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a statement after the bills won final passage.
“We have been critical as recently as a year ago about both the process and substance of juvenile justice legislation,” Brooks said. “Therefore, it is especially important that we commend the process and the results of cornerstone juvenile justice reform this year.”
The Herald-Leader has reported that Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice has struggled to properly staff its eight juvenile detention centers or provide important services to youths, including mental health care. And many of the youths held in detention are charged with minor violations, such as truancy or running away from home.
Lawmakers avoided the issue of locking up youths for those minor violations, called “status offenses.” The one measure that would have banned the practice, House Bill 591, was sponsored by a Democrat and never saw any action in the Republican-led legislature.
However, the two successful bills, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 162, begin with an annual appropriation of $64.4 million and offer plenty of action items for the months ahead. They included:
- Raising the starting pay of the security officers in juvenile detention centers to $50,000 (and, in the interest of fairness, providing a matching raise to the corrections officers who work inside state prisons at the Department of Corrections).
Possibly the biggest single problem at the juvenile detention centers has been a lack of staff. Beshear recently authorized the raises to recruit and retain more of the security officers known as “youth workers,” who long have been unable to cover their shifts. It amounted to a $10,000 to $15,000 jump above previous pay levels.
- Renovating and reopening a juvenile detention center in downtown Louisville that was closed by the Metro Louisville government several years ago due to budget cuts. The state also will finish security upgrades and a full reopening of a lower-security juvenile detention center in the Louisville suburb of Lyndon that had been plagued by fires, escapes and other incidents.
During the recent period when Louisville had no juvenile detention facilities, youths from Jefferson County were sent elsewhere, often 90 minutes away to a DJJ detention center in rural Adair County. This overloaded the Adair County facility while also frustrating the families and attorneys of Louisville youths.
“With Jefferson County experiencing the highest juvenile crime rates in the commonwealth, we must open a detention center,” said state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R- Louisville, primary sponsor of HB 3.
- Instructing DJJ to sign contracts with mental health professionals to provide necessary care to youths held in juvenile detention centers.
SB 162 also includes $1.5 million for DJJ to establish a diversionary program that could identify and provide treatment for youths who suffer from severe mental illness.
[EARLIER: Ky. Senate gets bill with $48M in annual funding to fix juvenile justice system]
State Rep. Rep. Keturah Herron, D- Louisville, said she was grateful for this portion.
“I know that next year is going to be an official budget year,” Herron told her colleagues as the House passed the Senate bill. “I hope that we can put more resources into the prevention, intervention, reentry and alternatives to detention as well.”
Language in SB 162 would protect youths from having anything they said during treatment used against them as evidence in their criminal cases. This was a concern that state officials have cited as one reason for not providing mental health treatment for youths in pre-trial detention, as compared to youths who already have been sentenced and who are housed in DJJ’s youth development centers and group homes.
- Including statutory language that supports Beshear’s recent decision to equip youth workers inside the juvenile detention centers with tasers and pepper spray, so they can defend themselves. Lawmakers also mandated better emergency response training for DJJ staff and specially trained emergency response teams inside each facility.
But lawmakers reversed Beshear on another recent decision. The governor reorganized the juvenile detention centers away from the regional model, where youths generally were sent to the nearest facility, in favor of a new system that segregated low-risk and high-risk offenders and girls from boys, all in separate facilities.
Lawmakers said they sympathized with Beshear’s intent, but it resulted in many youths being housed hours away from their homes and the courts where their cases are being heard. SB 162 instructs Beshear to transition back to the regional model “while safely segregating males and females and separating violent and nonviolent offenders.”
- Requiring that youths taken into custody for a violent felony offense must be detained for up to 48 hours — not counting weekends or holidays — before they can get a detention hearing, as well as a mental health and substance abuse evaluation.
This “mandatory hold” language was controversial because it removes the discretion of court officials to decide who should be detained for an initial period based on the individual facts of a case.
As part of a compromise, the change would be delayed to not take effect until July 1, 2024. Also, members of the clergy, family and other verified support persons could visit the youth during the 48-hour hold. Finally, children age 10 and younger would be exempt.
Spending any time locked in a detention center is proven to have corrosive effects and should be avoided if possible, especially for impressionable teens, said Ashley Spalding, research director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea.
“And the bill did not include investment in community-based supports and services, which research shows is what can really help kids turn their lives around, and to prevent them from becoming system-involved in the first place,” Spalding said.
- Waiving the usual confidentiality of juvenile court records for three years after youths are convicted of a violent felony offense so they can be discovered during criminal background checks by prospective employers and others.
If youths are not convicted of another serious offense during that three-year window, then their records would be sealed.
NEXT: Lawmakers call for investigation, new leadership at Ky. juvenile justice agency
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