Skip to content

An update on the state juvenile justice system

Within the last year, we have seen many stories of our state juvenile justice centers, including how the youths are treated, riots, youth workers being hospitalized, and the lack of safety within the facilities. Some Interim Joint Committees met with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) during the summer months about the riots. Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee met to investigate what happened at the Lyndon facility, and then the Judiciary committee followed up with that investigation and questioned the DJJ about the riot that occurred in Adair County.
Over the last month, a juvenile justice work group met with stakeholders, including DJJ officials, employees, educators, judges and other court representatives, as well as others with a vested interest in the issue. The informal work group includes members of the House and Senate from both political parties and is aimed at getting to the bottom of the issue and come up with a short-term solution, also a long-term one. Ultimately, the state must ensure that those housed in these facilities are safe and secure, but also that those who work in these detention centers have the tools they need to protect themselves and others. There have been many instances of youth workers being attacked and hospitalized, fights breaking out, and youths escaping.
Staffing shortages appear to be a leading factor in these safety issues. To help with these extreme staffing shortages, the governor announced that he would use funds we allocated to the department to increase starting pay to $50,000 for detention center staff. However, this money was intended to be used for additional positions, leaving a hole in the department’s budget. You may remember that the budget approved last session included funding for an across the board 8% raise for all state employees in the first fiscal year, while setting aside the equivalent of a 12% pay raise for the second year. To access those funds, the budget requires a detailed compensation plan that proposes targeted pay increases in areas that have lagged because of turnover and other reasons. That stipulation has yet to be met.
Work group members also heard about a need for more security in these facilities. Until recently, employees could not carry defensive equipment like pepper spray or tasers, despite the fact many of the juveniles are being detained for extremely violent crimes. The department has also added a director of security and a compliance. Other changes include separating males and females at facilities and separating the juveniles by the level of offense.
On January 27, leaders of the work group sent a formal letter to Governor Beshear about what they found from the multiple meetings they had during January. Much of the information from those meetings was very alarming, including the low morale of staff, toxic work culture, and fear of retaliation by the administration. The letter included a list of recommendations for the administration:
Use every resource to restore detention facilities’ safety, order, structure, and discipline.
Consider replacing department leadership and conducting a nationwide search for new department officials with a vision to remedy the existing toxic culture within DJJ.
Allow an open inspection by an independent party of the detention facilities. A report should be returned in 30 days to the Legislative Research Commission detailing the conditions of the facilities, the treatment of detainees, the morale of the staff, and the working conditions.
Develop and maintain a tracking notification system to automatically notify authorized parents, legal guardians, and law enforcement agencies of detained youth’s movement across the state, from one facility to another, to and from court or any other location, until they are committed or imprisoned.
Explain the failure to continue implementing the 2017 recommendations of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
Swiftly make trauma care available to current employees and employees who worked at detention facilities within the last three years.
Enter into and maintain a contract with Our Lady of Peace hospital or a similarly qualified entity and work with providers to ensure that juveniles in DJJ custody who are experiencing severe mental illness receive timely and comprehensive mental health treatment.
Provide us with the specific gaps in the law needing reform to allow for a healthy department that protects youth and staff.
Appoint an outside trustee or an entity in a receiver to manage the overhaul of DJJ.
Juvenile justice reforms will continue to be a priority as we return to Frankfort on February 7. We must come together to find solutions so Kentucky’s kids can get the treatment they deserve and feel safe while away from their homes. Politics has no place when lives are at risk.
As always, I can be reached here at home anytime, or through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181. Feel free to contact me via email at If you would like more information, please visit the legislature’s website at

Leave a Comment