Kentucky gov announces changes for juvenile justice system
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Andy Beshear unveiled a sweeping plan Thursday to shore up safety and overcome chronic staffing shortages in Kentucky’s juvenile detention system.
The Democratic governor’s announcement follows a series of actions he took late last year to try to defuse the risks of violence in detention centers. The issue is expected to receive considerable attention when the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature reconvenes in early February.
The governor on Thursday announced an increase in starting pay for detention center staff. And in a big policy change, “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and tasers — will be provided for the first time so detention center workers can defend themselves and others if attacked, he said.
The state’s juvenile justice department has hired a director of security and will add a compliance division to ensure best practices are followed systemwide, Beshear said. Visitor screenings will be bolstered to prevent drugs or other dangerous items from infiltrating detention centers, he said.
And Beshear said he wants to start the process to build two new juvenile justice facilities.
“What I hope people see is nobody’s running from this,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “This is a challenge and a problem that needs to be fixed. These facilities need to be safe.”
Beshear didn’t provide a specific price tag but said the expense will be significant.
“It will be in the tens of millions of dollars that we will need to make swift and significant changes that provide for more safety in these facilities,” he said.
The governor said his administration will work with lawmakers in the coming weeks, with the goal of providing the additional funding and making changes to enhance safety.
The actions come as the state-operated system has struggled to quell violent outbursts by some juveniles — a trend exacerbated by the staffing shortage at detention centers. A riot broke out last year at one detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded. Order was restored after state police troopers and other law enforcement officers entered the facility.
At another juvenile detention center, a riot broke out when some youths choked and attacked staff with a broom, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Juveniles held at state detention centers receive education, counseling and recreational opportunities. But outbreaks of violence have caused disruptions in those services.
The governor announced Thursday that the starting salary for juvenile justice workers in the detention centers is being raised to $50,000 per year. Youth workers in detention centers are being reclassified as corrections officers, he said.
“Our hope is that this will improve retention, help in the short term in hiring and get us on the path to ultimately having the staffing that is needed in these facilities,” Beshear said.
It follows two prior rounds of pay raises to help recruit and retain juvenile justice workers.
As for the introduction of “defensive equipment,” detention center youth workers will carry pepper spray, especially in higher-security facilities, once they undergo training, he said. Workers will have access to tasers, he said, but “we’re looking at the policy of when and where they are carried.”
“Right now when we have a major incident, all they can do is lock down — possibly not even intercede when there is a violent altercation because they don’t have the ability to do so safely — and wait for the state police or others to arrive,” the governor said.
In another step, substantial upgrades are being made to detention centers to enhance security.
The new director of security is Larry Chandler, who previously served as warden of six Kentucky prisons, the governor said. Chandler is involved in assessing worker safety needs and security enhancements at all detention centers, Beshear said.
“His experience is already providing significant help,” the governor said.
Last year, Beshear announced that male juveniles will be assigned to facilities based on the severity of their offenses. Three high-security juvenile detention centers have been designated to house teenage male offenders charged with serious crimes. Previous actions also included opening the state’s first female-only juvenile detention center.
The governor has said the changes reflect a sobering new reality — that the male population held in the juvenile detention system has become “significantly more violent.”
“Ensuring the safety of our workers is the only way we have enough workers,” Beshear said Thursday. “And then ensuring the safety of our workers is the start to ensuring safety for the juveniles as well.”