Staffing improves slightly at Ky. youth detention facilities, but issues persist
After large investments in recruiting youth correctional officers, Kentucky lawmakers are asking whether the same emphasis should be placed on psychologists and social workers. Recent changes could also mean kids are often getting transported longer distances when they’re put behind bars.
After a series of high-profile, violent incidents in Kentucky’s network of juvenile detention facilities, lawmakers poured money into the Department of Juvenile Justice to shore up staffing and update security.
It was one of the few bipartisan issues during this year’s legislative session, with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration and the Republican-led legislature agreeing to set aside $45.2 million for the ailing system. The effort followed a series of violent incidents across the system, including assaults, rape and even a momentary escape.
Some lawmakers and DJJ officials said the staffing shortage was largely to blame for the violence and poor supervision inside the detention facilities. In response, Beshear increased starting salaries for juvenile correctional officers to $50,000 in January.
Rodney Moore, who manages employee recruitment and retention with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said the number of youth correctional officers in the state has increased from 146 to 183 since the initiative. But the department has 124 more vacancies it’s trying to fill.
“Although we've seen significant staffing improvements, we still have areas that have a long way to go,” Moore said. “In our more urban areas, where competition is greater, recruitment and retention is still an ongoing issue.”
Lexington Democratic Rep. Lindsey Burke questioned why the majority of the pay raises went to correctional officers instead of community-oriented employees, like social workers and psychologists.
“This issue did not arise in a vacuum, and it certainly didn't arise just within the last four years,” she said. “A part of the perspective that I think is important is realizing that our goal is not to incarcerate children.”
Moore said the agency has been working to attract psychologists and social workers, but hasn’t made as much progress.
Advocates expressed concerns that regulations enacted by the Beshear administration are sending incarcerated kids farther from their homes, making it difficult for family and legal counsel to stay in contact.
After a riot that led to the sexual assault of a girl and injury of a staff member at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center last year, Beshear responded by requiring incarcerated children to be separated by gender and the severity of their offenses. Proposed regulations also require incarcerated kids to be transferred based on staffing, capacity, no contact orders and gang affiliations.
Deputy Public Advocate B. Scott West said the new rules often mean kids are moved hundreds of miles away from family, support systems and even their lawyers.
“Kids need their attorney, and that's what we're there for. That's our mission,” West said. “In order to do that with any kind of zealousness or effectiveness, we need to have more of a regionalism, so the person can go to a facility and see the majority if not all of their clients. Or we're just going to have to add more, and those attorneys aren't out there to hire.”
DJJ has recommended further codifying the regulations, which would remove references in the law that prioritize placing kids in facilities closer to their homes, when practical.
According to West, one public defender in Jefferson County has clients at seven out of the state’s eight youth detention facilities, all in different counties. He said the distances make speaking with clients regularly nearly impossible.
Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Fruit Hill and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the state needs to move quickly to resolve the situation.
“If any of us had a criminal matter that we needed to attend to, we'd have a lawyer today,” he said. “If we don't act and do something to change that, I fear we'll move away from the regional model because the policy document won't reflect that objective at all. It'll be based strictly on separating males from females and violent from non-violent.”
Rep. Keturah Herron, a Democrat from Louisville, expressed concern with how frequently children are transported between facilities. She said she knows of one girl who was transported to at least four different facilities over one weekend.
“When we talk about the safety and security of our facilities, we also have to talk about how we are treating our young people,” Herron said. “It's very frustrating when we hear some of the narratives that these young people are being dangerous. We're causing them to be dangerous. We're causing them to be agitated. We're causing them to be afraid and scared. Of course, these are young people, so they're going to act that way.”