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Youth Detention Center reopening in Louisville could take more time and money than expected

Some areas of the old Jefferson County Youth Detention Center, like the basketball court and gym, remain closed after a portion of the facility was reopened as a Youth Transitional Center.
Roberto Roldan
Some areas of the old Jefferson County Youth Detention Center, like the basketball court and gym, remain closed after a portion of the facility was reopened as a Youth Transitional Center in June 2022.

Reopening Louisville’s Youth Detention Center may take longer and cost more money than state lawmakers expected.

Members of the Kentucky General Assembly hoped the 40-bed facility could be reopened within a year when they set aside roughly $17 million for the project during the most recent session. Lawmakers wanted to house kids accused of crimes closer to their families and alleviate issues at the nearby facility in Lyndon. But after a physical assessment of the Youth Detention Center, officials believe it’s no longer viable to meet the original budget and timeline for the project.

Deputy Mayor David James, who oversees emergency services for Louisville Metro, said the detention center needs serious work before it can start accepting kids again. There’s plumbing that hasn’t been run in years. The roof needs to be replaced. The four-person pods aren’t up to national standards because they don’t have running hot water.

“Nothing with government, especially state government, goes extremely lightning fast, but there is some urgency to get it done,” James said. “I would not look for anything within a year, though. It’s going to take longer.”

James said the facility also needs an upgraded “command and control system,” including new cameras, electronic door locks and a fire suppression system. The outdoor recreation area was also damaged during recent windstorms in Louisville, he said.

The state is responsible for fixing up the facility, and James is the city’s liaison as the project moves forward.

Once renovations are complete, the state will also have to staff the Youth Detention Center. That could push the timeline out even further, since the corrections industry has struggled with hiring for years.

Republican state Rep. Kevin Bratcher of Louisville was the primary sponsor of the bill, HB 3, that allocated funding for the reopening. It also included some tough-on-crime provisions, like making juvenile court records public if a kid is accused of committing a violent felony and penalizing parents who fail to participate in their child’s court-ordered diversion plan.

Bratcher said state lawmakers agreed to delay those changes until mid-2024 in part because that’s when they expected the Youth Detention Center to be operational again. He said it also appears like the project will exceed the $17 million that’s been set aside, but Bratcher says he’s less concerned about cost overruns because next year the General Assembly will work on a new two-year budget.

“Next year is a full budget year and there could be more [money] coming,” Bratcher said. “We are determined to make sure that this detention center opens up.”

Under the plan approved by the General Assembly, Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice will foot the bill for the renovations and the day-to-day operations of the facility. Louisville will only be responsible for providing wraparound services, like counseling or job training.

James said city officials are working with Metro’s Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods to figure out exactly what kind of services they’ll provide to kids who are incarcerated. Jefferson County Public Schools is expected to reopen a high school program in the detention center, similar to what existed at the facility prior to 2019.

Why does Louisville need a detention center?

Louisville Metro Council’s decision to close the Youth Detention Center in 2019 came amid the need for significant cuts in the city’s budget. Rising pension costs forced council members to slash funding for police and fire, layoff some city employees and cut city services to the tune of $25 million.

James, who was Metro Council president at the time, said the detention center was “one of the casualties” of the cuts.

“The state was reimbursing Louisville Metro at a rate of less than 50% of what the actual cost was for a resident of the facility,” he said.

That was partly because corrections officers had to be paid more in Jefferson County to keep wages competitive. James said Louisville was also offering “increased services” compared to other youth detention facilities in the commonwealth.

The decision to close the facility had serious consequences.

Last year, Metro Council members learned that police officers were releasing some kids suspected of a crime back to their parents, if they didn’t think a judge would order detention. In Kentucky, minors don’t automatically go to jail after an arrest. Instead, they’re held in custody until a court-designated worker can evaluate them.

That process can take hours and, until last summer, officers’ only options were to wait with kids that entire time, either sitting them in the back of their patrol vehicle or taking them to a facility without the proper staffing in far east Jefferson County.

“That meant that that officer was going to be off the street, unable to respond to runs and help citizens, while they were sitting there babysitting,” James said in an interview last year.

Louisville Metro opened Youth Transitional Services — taking up part of the former detention center on West Jefferson Street — last June as a place for officers to take kids awaiting evaluation.

But some lawmakers, like Rep. Bratcher, argue the closure of the detention center led to a policy of “catch and release.” Bratcher said he believes not adequately holding young people accountable has fueled Louisville’s spike in violent crimes. A recent data analysis found people under the age of 25 are disproportionately involved in those crimes, both as victims and suspects.

“The spike in juvenile crime across this city, across this state, in America, really, has brought a lot of these issues to the forefront,” Bratcher said. “That’s what brought it to the forefront for me.”

He also said locking up Louisville youth in Adair and Campbell Counties, far away from their support systems, has done more harm than good.

“Clergy in Louisville, parents in Louisville wanted a place nearby that they can go and try to talk to these kids and turn them around,” he said.

The facility in Adair County has also had issues with abuse and riots.

Not everyone agrees, however, that reopening the Youth Detention Center will be good for Louisville.

Some groups, like the Louisville Urban League, opposed HB 3 when it was making its way through the state legislature. They argued that the root causes of crime are poverty, education disparities and access to firearms, which incarcerating more kids doesn’t really address.

Lyndon Pryor, the League’s interim president, said he’s also opposed to the bill’s provision making juvenile records public for violent felony convictions. Under HB 3, those offenses include everything from assault and arson to murder. The bill allows those convictions to be sealed after three years, but only if a kid is not convicted of any additional crimes.

Pryor likened that provision to a life sentence.

“That may not be a life sentence into jail, but it might be a life sentence into poverty, it may be a life sentence into not being able to obtain an education or not to move forward in lots of other things,” he said.

Pryor also said city and state officials should work on making the Youth Detention Center look less like a jail. If kids feel like they’re being locked up, it could cause even more trauma or have the opposite effect of rehabilitation, he said.

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

News Youth Reporting
Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.