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Ky. juvenile detention centers facing critical staffing shortages, overcrowding

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Youth kicking down doors, brawling, having sex, breaking a staff member’s ribs and a short-lived escape were just a handful of allegations brought by officials and lawmakers about the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Lyndon.

Lawmakers grilled youth detention center officials over the problems during a Legislative Oversight and Investigations committee hearing Thursday. The hearing followed a series of fires started by incarcerated youth that culminated in a short-lived escape from the Louisville facility in August. 

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Kerry Harvey said the department is facing overcrowding and a staffing shortage at juvenile detention centers in Louisville and across the state. 

“Well we currently have about 175 vacancies in this area. We have little hope filling those under the current circumstances,” Harvey said. 

The August escape happened amid other allegations of riots and fights inside the co-ed facility, which Harvey said was never meant to be a detention facility in the first place. The young person was apprehended in a nearby residential neighborhood, just two doors down from the home of Lyndon Mayor Brent Hagan, the mayor said at the hearing Thursday. 

Former juvenile detention employee Michael Ross said the abuse and neglect at the Louisville facility has gone on for years. Ross told lawmakers the facility at times held significantly more youth than the facility was designed for. Often, there wasn’t enough staff to manage them, he said. The poor conditions compelled him to speak out.

“The abuse of the kids and there was a lot of it. Based on the fact that they would lock them in the room for three, four, five days and basically some of them wouldn't even get showers,” Ross said. 

Harvey said the fires and the escape are under investigation. The state’s current plan is to use some of the money from vacant position salaries to boost pay for existing staff members and new hires. That would ultimately cut the number of staff positions. 

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, of Louisville, the committee chair, recited a series of allegations against the facility in Louisville including a youth stealing keys, opening cell doors and jumping another youth in the facility.

“So there’s significant issues,” Nemes said. “Another problem for me is we are housing young men with young women. We are talking about 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds. I have reports from employees these kids are having sex with one another.”

Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins, of Shively, said it’s up to legislators to appropriate funds, improve conditions and change laws that would prevent young men and women from being incarcerated in the same facilities. 

“If there are needs that are not being met because of budgets and if we are putting kids in structures that aren’t appropriate for their housing, our feet should be held to the fire,” Jenkins said. 

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.