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Ky. governor appoints new commissioner to run the state's troubled juvenile justice department

Red brick building near bright blue sign
Department of Juvenile Justice
Department of Juvenile Justice
Juvenile facilities in Kentucky are facing a variety of challenges.

Kentucky's next juvenile justice commissioner vowed Thursday to focus on efforts to reduce youth detention rates as he prepares to take the helm of an agency that has been plagued by problems.

Gov. Andy Beshear introduced longtime state corrections executive Randy White as the next commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice. White retired from the corrections department in late 2023 after a 27-year career that included a stint as warden of the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

White assumes his new role on April 1. His predecessor as juvenile justice commissioner, Vicki Reed, became a lightning rod for criticism as the state-operated system struggled to quell violent outbursts at juvenile detention centers.

White said he agreed with what he called "positive changes” made within the agency. He noted that Kentucky isn’t the only state facing juvenile justice challenges. But he said the Bluegrass State took action to enhance protection at agency facilities and make a difference in the lives of youths in state custody.

He acknowledged that juveniles entering the criminal justice system now are accused of harsher crimes, necessitating stronger rehabilitative programs, than 27 years ago when he started his corrections career.

“For Kentucky to truly reduce the juvenile population, we must focus our efforts on alternatives to detention –- education programming, employment and mental health," White said.

“Our juveniles need our support,” he added. "And I pledge to do just that by prioritizing our efforts while reducing youth crime and recidivism, increasing mental health treatment, enhancing employee training and securing all 27 juvenile facilities to better protect youth and our staff.”

There has been frequent turnover in the commissioner's job as the Department of Juvenile Justice struggled to overcome problems.

The governor praised White's extensive experience and said his appointment to run the agency is the “next step in making our juvenile justice system the best that it can be.”

“I think with Randy, what we see is the best combination of the knowledge that we need to operate these facilities safely, to make the changes we need to make," Beshear said. "But also a deep commitment to these juveniles, to try to help them, to try to get the services needed to reintegrate them with society. And if we do it right, to not see them in one of these detention facilities again.”

Kentucky’s juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of youths accused of violent offenses. The result was a string of assaults, riots and escapes as well as incidents of abuse and neglect of youths at juvenile detention centers.

A riot broke out in 2022 at a detention center, causing injuries to young people and staff. Order was restored after state police and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. In another incident, some juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at another center.

Beshear responded with a series of policy changes to try to quell the violence. He announced, among other things, that male juveniles would be assigned to facilities based on the severity of their offenses, and “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — was provided for the first time so detention center workers could defend themselves and others if attacked.

As the problems mounted, state lawmakers responded by appropriating money to boost salaries for juvenile justice employees, hire more Department of Juvenile Justice correctional officers, improve security at detention centers and increase diversion and treatment services for detained youths.

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