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Republican lawmakers call for investigation into Kentucky’s troubled juvenile justice system

Divya Karthikeyan
Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, of Louisville, discusses proposed reforms to the juvenile justice system at the state Capitol.

A workgroup of Republican state lawmakers says Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear needs to overhaul leadership of the state’s troubled juvenile justice system.

They’re also calling for the governor to appoint a trustee to oversee reforms in the agency, much like the way a company is restructured after a bankruptcy.

GOP lawmakers created the workgroup earlier this year after a series of assaults, escapes and riots at youth detention facilities around the state.

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville, said the state needs to work with an outside entity to investigate the system and “change the culture.”

“The people of Kentucky have lost confidence in the folks that are running the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Nemes said.

“The single most important thing that can be done by the governor is that we need an outside trustee to come in that doesn’t answer to anybody in the Department of Juvenile Justice.”

Beshear said he would welcome an outside review of the system and defended the agency's commissioner, Vicki Reed.

"She wants to make these changes, she wants to make these facilities safe," Beshear said.

Hired in 2021, Reed is the fifth commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice since 2018. She was appointed to the position after the previous commissioner, LaShana Harris, was fired after alleged harassment and bullying.

The department has been plagued with scandals and problems in recent years.

The Juvenile Justice Workgroup said the administration should consider replacing "key DJJ leadership" and conduct a nationwide search for new officials.

The group’s list of recommendations also includes developing a tracking system that will automatically notify corrections workers of youth detainees’ movements, and contracting with Our Lady of Peace hospital, a psychiatric facility.

During a news conference on Thursday, Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher said he has been in discussions with Louisville Metro government to open a new youth detention facility in Jefferson County. He said he would file a bill requesting $8.9 million to retrofit a building to house a detention center for young people.

Louisville’s old youth detention facility closed in 2019 amid budget cuts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentuckyresponded to the proposal on Twitter, saying the state needs to focus on alternative solutions to help young people in the system.

“As long as the state detains youth, they should be close to their families, counsel, and communities. But we must focus on what Kentucky kids really need: more and better access to counselors, therapists, after school programs, violence intervention, and more,” the civil rights group wrote.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton, applauded Beshear for bringing in Kentucky State Police “to restore safety, order and structure” to three facilities.

“I think that will help to stabilize those areas and give those staff members there a sense of security and I think the juveniles housed there will be less likely to do things they have been doing just because of their presence,” he said.

Beshear announced later on Thursday that the KSP troopers would be stationed at juvenile justice facilities in Fayette, Warren and Adair counties.

The Republican group said it’s difficult to find out information about youth facilities and called for “unfettered access” to staff and state officials.

Carroll said it’s important for investigators to be able to speak freely with the staff and young people in the system.

“It’s not the same kids in these facilities as before and they’re more hardcore and violent now. Often you don’t know what the problems are until somebody on staff leaves. And the administration is not interested in talking about it,” he said.

Beshear previously announced segregation of detained youths into different detention centers by gender and by the severity of their offenses and increase in starting salaries for existing youth workers to solve the issue of chronic understaffing.

While lawmakers praised the move to segregate detainees, they raised concerns about the legislature having to make budget allocations to pay for the salary increases.

This story has been corrected.

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

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Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.