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Justice Department to investigate Kentucky’s youth detention facilities

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

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced a statewide investigation into Kentucky’s beleaguered youth detention facilities over civil rights concerns.

Kentucky’s eight state-run youth detention centers and youth development centers have long been the center of safety and health concerns, including concerns that children were frequently held in lengthy periods of isolation and not adequately protected from other detainees.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday they would investigate the centers run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice for civil rights concerns, including allegations of excessive use of force, inadequate protection and sexual abuse within the facilities.

“Too often, juvenile justice facilities break our children, exposing them to dangerous and traumatic conditions,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “All children held in the custody of the state deserve safe and humane conditions that can bring about true rehabilitation and reform.”

Louisville Public Media, the Lexington Herald Leader and other Kentucky media outlets have extensively reported on the failures and challenges facing the state’s juvenile justice system. Lawmakers have grilled officials over reports of assaults, escapes, fires, staffing shortages and overcrowding at state youth detention centers.

In a statement, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said his administration has put in place “extensive reforms,” including requiring the facilities to separate boys and girls, and separation based on the severity of crimes.

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 instituted the new requirements. The proposed regulations also required incarcerated kids to be transferred based on staffing, capacity, no contact orders and gang affiliations.

Public defenders and advocates have complained that the new policy sends kids farther from their homes as the system moved away from a regional model for housing child detainees. A legislative task force determined that the best method was to return boys to a regional model while building two new facilities explicitly for girl detainees.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Keith Jackson said the agency has improved security at juvenile facilities, protected youth and staff from violent attacks and taken “corrective action” against employee misconduct.

“We look forward to being able to talk to the Department of Justice, because as of today, no members of leadership have been interviewed, and we have not had the opportunity to discuss any incident, policy or issue with the Department of Justice,” Jackson said in a statement.

Despite the significant need, Kentucky lawmakers failed to pass legislation this year that would have created new systems and facilities to address the challenges. No money for the new facilities was included in the state’s two-year budget, though it did include money to retrofit three juvenile detention centers in McCracken, Breathitt and Fayette counties for a total of $23.2 million.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, said in a statement that the Republican-led legislature has prioritized addressing the issues within the department and said he hopes the investigation will be a “crucial wake-up call for the Beshear administration.”

“Our consistent advocacy for policy and budget reforms aims to rectify the ongoing crisis within the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Givens said. "We urge the Governor and his administration to extend full cooperation to the federal investigators."

The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section is conducting this investigation alongside the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Western and Eastern Districts of Kentucky. The department encourages people with relevant information to contact the department at (888) 392-8241 or Kentucky.Kids@usdoj.gov.

This story has been updated.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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