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One in three Ky. juvenile justice CO jobs are vacant

Despite a substantial funding hike, enduring staffing challenges persistent in the state’s juvenile justice system


Earlier this year Gov. Andy Beshear and the legislature authorized pay raises at the juvenile detention centers from $30,000 to $50,000.

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By John Cheves
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — One in every three correctional officer jobs is vacant at the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice even though lawmakers put more than $64 million a year into the current state budget in part to hike wages and add more staff at the long-troubled agency.

A one-in-three vacancy rate is about where the department stood two years ago, in late 2021, as news stories began shining a spotlight on its shortcomings. At that time, the guard positions were called “youth workers.”

Since then, former employees have filed lawsuits alleging unsafe conditions inside the detention centers, cruel mistreatment of youths and cover-ups by administrators. Two nurses described the situation as “a toxic cocktail where violence was not only predictable, but inevitable” in their litigation.

The ACLU of Kentucky in August asked the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the “unsanitary and nearly uninhabitable” conditions inside the juvenile detention center in Adair County .

The legislature’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Council received an update Tuesday on the progress of reforms at the department, which operates eight juvenile detention centers to house youths charged with offenses and awaiting their day in court.

Many of the department’s problems in recent years — riots, assaults, escapes, neglect and staff abuse of youths — have been blamed by state officials on inadequate staffing.

To fill the ranks, Gov. Andy Beshear and the legislature this year authorized large pay raises at the juvenile detention centers, boosting the starting pay for correctional officers from what originally was around $30,000 to $50,000.

Also, extra money in the current state budget allowed the department to increase total staffing from 419 to 565.

All that money may have helped, but it hasn’t solved everything. According to data from the department, of 309 correctional officer positions, the number of filled jobs rose from 128 in January to a high of 216 in September. It fell to 202 by late October.

Overall staffing at the juvenile detention centers, including support jobs, is 28 percent vacant, with 153 jobs open as of late October, the department reported.

In a prepared statement issued after Tuesday’s hearing, state officials said they’re making progress toward their goal.

“We have made it a priority to protect staff and juveniles and create secure facilities by increasing staffing levels,” said Morgan Hall , spokeswoman for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the Department of Juvenile Justice .

The juvenile detention centers in Fayette , Boyd and Breathitt counties are “almost” fully staffed, Hall said.

“Overall, wages, hiring and new positions have all increased, and we are working to hire new employees. The department has a full-time recruitment manager and continues to actively recruit through job fairs, social media, advertisements and school partnerships,” she said.

The Juvenile Justice Oversight Council accepted the staffing data without asking questions or offering comment.

Apart from boosting staff and pay at the juvenile detention centers, the General Assembly last winter passed a number of other reform measures in an effort to fix the Department of Juvenile Justice .

They included requirements to reopen a juvenile detention center in Louisville ; sign contracts with mental health professionals to provide necessary care for youths in custody; and establish a diversionary program to identify and provide treatment for youths who suffer from severe mental illness.

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