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Beshear announces new juvenile justice measures to attract more workers

The interior of a jail
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Starting early next year, the Kentucky juvenile justice system will operate three high-security centers, aimed at improving safety.

Gov. Andy Beshear announced a slate of juvenile justice measures in a news conference on Thursday that will include pay raises to attract and retain more workers, and protective equipment for youth workers.

Beshear didn’t announce the price tag for the measures but said it will cost upwards of $10 million. The plan comes after juvenile detention centers in Kentucky have been troubled by multiple instances of riots, assaults and escapes.

“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.

Workers at centers previously made an average of $35,000 to $40,000. Beshear hiked the starting salary for youth workers to $50,000 a year.

The administration is struggling to recruit more workers at the facilities, which have become exceedingly risky and dangerous. Beshear said the vacancy rate stood at over 40%.

In more protective measures for workers, “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and tasers — will be provided for the first time so they can defend themselves and others if attacked.

Terry Brooks, the executive director of KY Youth Advocates, said the measures can be seen as a “first step,” but not the “solitary answer.”

“Being able to develop a high quality workforce certainly involves compensation, it involves better working conditions and opportunities for advancement. But it also involves a sense of success,” he said.

Brooks said equipping workers with behavioral health training would help both officers and children detained in the facilities succeed.

“I believe that if you’re working in a detention facility, you want to get them on the right track and you want to help them. And that’s a tough job. So we need to make sure they have the tools not just for self-protection, but tools to help kids as well,” he said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice now has a new director of security. Larry Chandler, who previously served as warden of six Kentucky prisons, will oversee two new detention facilities and suggest tighter security measures to prevent further violent incidents.

Beshear also announced a compliance division to ensure best practices are followed systemwide, which will include visitor screenings to prevent dangerous items from entering facilities.

Brooks said while increasing staff compensation helps, the system needs “a revolution.”

“If we can build a system that’s good for kids that doesn’t punish them, it’s a system that’s going to be good for staff,” he said. “Those places are going to be better places to work because you’re not in a combat zone.”

Beshear previously announced the creation of two detention facilities.

Male juveniles 14 and older who have been charged with violent or serious offenses are being housed at one of three high-security detention centers in Adair, Fayette and Warren counties.

Males in that same age group who have been charged with a lower-level offense are being housed in Boyd, Breathitt, Jefferson and McCracken counties.

Previous actions also included opening 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.

Over the past year, the cabinet has been able to raise pay for staff, through increases from Beshear and the Legislature.

Lawmakers will reconvene on Feb. 7 for the 2023 legislative session. The state Senate unanimously approved the creation of a workgroup to investigate violence and dangerous working conditions in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers, which will meet on Feb.7.

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Divya is Kentucky Public Radio's Capitol Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.
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