As Governor Andy Beshear took the next steps to contain security issues on Thursday, Kentucky said it would soon operate three high-security juvenile detention centers designated to house young male offenders accused of serious crimes.
The Democratic governor announced last week that he plans to renew Kentucky’s troubled juvenile detention system by assigning young men to facilities based on the severity of their crimes.
This comes at a time when the state-run system is trying to quell the violent outbursts of some children – a trend exacerbated by severe staff shortages in detention centres. Many youths and staff were injured in the riot that broke out in a detention center last month.
The governor filled out the details of his plan to overhaul the juvenile detention system, while senior members of his administration provided lawmakers an update at a committee meeting.
Beshear announced on Thursday that the facilities to be granted high-security designation are the Adair Regional Detention Center, the Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center, and the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center. He said these centers will house boys aged 14 and over who have been accused of violence or other serious crimes.
“We can really improve our security at high-end facilities, and that will make everyone safer,” the governor said at his weekly press conference.
The four facilities, including the Boyd Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Breathitt Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center, and McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center, will house boys under 14 years old or children charged with crimes of a lower level.
The governor said the new classification system reflects a sobering new reality that the male population held in the state’s juvenile detention system has become “significantly more violent.”
“We have to change for the safety of everyone involved,” he said.
It will replace the decades-old regional system that places children in detention facilities based on where they live. For a system that now deals with more violent youth, this regional pattern could result in a child accused of murder being placed next to someone held for truancy from school, Beshear said.
The target date for the change is January of the next year.
In another policy change, the governor recently ordered the state to open the first women-only juvenile detention center in Campbell County to better protect detainees.
In November, several youths and staff were injured in the turmoil at the detention center in Adair County. State police said it started when a teenager assaulted a staff member, took the employee’s keys and released the other teens from their cells. Order was restored after state police soldiers and other law enforcement officers entered the facility in southern Kentucky.
In October, a riot broke out at the Ashland juvenile detention center in which some two dozen youths — previously undisclosed — strangled staff and attacked them with a broom, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. During the riot, the tip of an employee’s finger was cut off.
Children held in state detention centers enjoy education, counseling and entertainment. However, violent incidents caused disruptions in these services.
Lawmakers said on Thursday they would like to hear more details from Beshear’s administration on how security issues will be resolved. Republican state Senator Whitney Westerfield, a leading voice on juvenile justice issues, later described the violence as “a disturbing set of circumstances”.
“I still have concerns about staffing levels, and if it’s all about not having good staff or not enough salaries, we need to spend some money there,” Westerfield told reporters.
Beshear said at a press conference that pay raises for government employees should be “on the table” at the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January. The governor said his message to lawmakers was that the actions he had announced were “urgent steps we need to take”. He said he would welcome “any contribution of the General Assembly” for additional steps.
On Wednesday, the Department of Juvenile Justice housed 171 boys in detention centers across the state. The governor’s office said in a press release that 82 of them were charged with violent or serious crimes. Meanwhile, the ministry is seeking to fill more than 105 full-time jobs across the detention center system, the statement said.
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan of Louisville, Kentucky contributed to this report.