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LISTEN: Ky. juvenile justice leaders respond to criticisms of conditions in detention centers

A row of prison cells are pictured on the left side of the photo. One door is open.
Starting early next year, the Kentucky juvenile justice system will operate three high-security centers, aimed at improving safety.

Kentucky’s juvenile justice system has been plagued by assaults, riots and escapes over the past few years. The crisis has brought intense scrutiny on Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration and leadership at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Beshear has already announced some reforms: segregating detained youths into different detention centers by gender and by severity of their offenses and increasing salaries for employees to try and attract more workers. Beshear also recently opened the state’s first female-only juvenile detention center.

The changes come after several riots at youth facilities, including a November incident at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center in which a staff member was injured and a girl housed in the female wing was sexually assaulted by incarcerated males.

On Thursday, a workgroup of Republican state lawmakers called for Gov. Beshear to overhaul leadership of the Department of Juvenile Justice and open up the agency to an outside investigation.

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

Capitol reporter Divya Karthikeyan spoke to Vicki Reed, commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice and Kerry Harvey, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet on what needs to be done beyond existing measures and their response to demands to overhaul the department.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

KARTHIKEYAN: Thank you, Commissioner Reid and Secretary Harvey for joining me.

Commissioner Reid, the focus currently by the Beshear administration to solve this crisis in Kentucky's juvenile detention facilities has been on chronic understaffing. And one solution implemented is increasing the base salary to attract and retain more workers. Is the administration thinking of strategies beyond boosting security and pay to deal with these challenges?

REED: The staffing really is the number one huge issue because this is a relationship business. And the kids know when we're short staffed, and they know that a child would exploit that, so having the staff and being able to have those positive relationships and role models with the youth is just crucial.

So if you don't have staff, and you know, you can't do all the programming you want to do, and you're just really restricted in your ability to positively affect the kid.

KARTHIKEYAN: So there’s one aspect of this that lawmakers, the executive branch, and I'm sure you agree on as well, is that a lot of the youth population in these facilities have behavioral and mental health problems? What sort of mental health support and tools is the DJJ (Department of Juvenile Justice) extending to these kids and workers as well? Why hasn't that been enough of a priority?

REED: It's not that we're just going to do safety and not worry about our programming and the mental health. We're doing those both, but safety and security, you have to have that to do the other. So it is the foundation of your house. That's the first thing that we're looking at.

But you know, we're certainly spending time on mental health needs and training, on verbal de-escalation skills, so that we don't have incidents come up and having staff understand the best way to deal with kids. So we'll be addressing all of those things.

KARTHIKEYAN: And we also have Kerry Harvey, who is the Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet joining us.

So a group of Republican lawmakers focused on juvenile justice reform proposed an overhaul of the department leadership and also wanted to bring an outside trustee and an independent investigation into these facilities. I want to know where you stand on that, because it's clear that things are not going well.

HARVEY: I don't really know what would be meant by an outside trustee, we started trying to address these issues quite some time ago. So I don't think it would be useful to just undo all of the good work that's been done and say, “we're going to start all over.”

KARTHIKEYAN: Lawmakers also pointed out that there is a lack of transparency about the conditions of these facilities and the children housed in them. And that we're hearing most of it from media reporting and less from the department. How do you respond to that?

HARVEY: It's not as useful as I wish it was to say, well, we've talked to some people, but we can't tell you who they are. And they say generally, there's a bad atmosphere in the facility. So that doesn't give us a lot in terms of specifics to address. And when we see problems, whether they're there with the policies or with the way that our staff is reacting, certainly that will be addressed.

REED: I'm happy for anybody to come in and examine our facilities if they need to.

KARTHIKEYAN: And finally, Commissioner Reed, seeing the crisis unfold and the constant churn of the department leadership over the last 10 years, are you considering stepping down?

REED: No, I do not. You know, I have a passion for this work. I have, you know, if I felt like that somebody was better than me at doing that, I'd be more than happy to hand it over to them, but we've made a lot of progress. And so I'm hoping to say and see it through

KARTHIKEYAN: Commissioner Reed and Secretary Harvey, thank you so much for your time.

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

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

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