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Kentucky juvenile justice system reform bills head to Gov. Beshear’s desk

Amina Elahi

House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 162 are both measures that would address high-profile problems in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, where staff and incarcerated youth have endured a series of assaults, escapes, riots and allegations of inappropriate force in recent years.

HB3 would commit $39 million to spending that would improve security in juvenile detention facilities and boost staffing, but it also makes the system more punitive for youth offenders.

It would unseal for three years the criminal records of youth convicted of some violent crimes, including burglary, robbery or assault. And it would require young people charged with those crimes to be held in jail for up to 48 hours before their cases are heard. It would also:

  • Allow members of the clergy, family and other verified support persons to visit a juvenile during the 48-hour holding period,
  • Enhance access to mental health care and restorative justice programs,
  • Appropriate $13.2 million toward the reopening and renovation of the shuttered Jefferson County Youth Detention Center and $2 million toward operating costs, and
  • Appropriate $4.5 million toward the renovation of the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center at Lyndon.

If the bills become law, they would go into effect in July 2024.

Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron from Louisville said she appreciates Republicans working fast to pass bipartisan juvenile justice legislation, but criticized some reforms as being a result of “impulsive legislating.”

“We failed at looking at different approaches to solve this. We can't just incarcerate our way out of issues affecting youth. There was no money put forward for intervention, prevention, reentry, or alternatives to detention,” she said.

Last month, Beshear established a new system that segregated low-risk and high-risk offenders and girls from boys, all in separate facilities. But Republican lawmakers unraveled Beshear’s structure in HB3, which reorganizes juvenile detention in a regional model, where youths would be housed closer to their homes and communities.

Herron said she intends to introduce legislation next year — when state lawmakers will create Kentucky’s next budget — that would prioritize money for mental health interventions. Republicans and Democrats agree there needs to be more focus on mental health programs and both bills have proposals to address them, but Herron said there’s no concrete plans or money set aside.

“Just as these kids sometimes are the perpetrators of violence, they're also the victims of violence. And you have to take into consideration what the overall community trauma is when you’re making more laws to fix the system,” she said. ‘

SB 162 would:

  • Have all eight juvenile detention centers report to one supervisor,
  • Establish a tracking system to monitor juveniles’ locations,
  • Appoint one non-voting member from the House and one from the Senate to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council,
  • Allow the DJJ to enter into a contract with a third-party organization to work with juveniles with severe emotional or mental illnesses,
  • Detention workers would be given pepper spray and tasers to use during violent incidents at detention centers,
  • Appropriate millions toward salary increases, security upgrades at DJJ centers, and a diversionary program for youths.

The bill also includes a provision that would protect youths’ comments during treatment from being used against them as evidence in their criminal cases. This was a concern that state officials cited as one reason for not providing mental health treatment for youths in pre-trial detention, as compared to youths who have been sentenced and who are housed in DJJ’s youth development centers and group homes.

Ashley Spalding, a research director with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said SB 162’s focus on salary increases for staff and oversight of the DJJ were much needed. But she said there are pieces that “don’t seem necessary,” like issuing tasers and pepper spray to workers for defensive use.

“But what really strikes me is that there’s just $1.5 million going towards mental health diversions. It isn't clear to what extent these services will be provided in the detention facilities, and it seems like none of it will be provided in community settings,” she said.

Spalding said it’s expensive to incarcerate kids: $539 per day for a child in the system according to DJJ data. Lawmakers need to realize the solution lies in preventing kids from entering the pipeline, she said.

“By creating mandatory detention, the state will be spending more money on youth detention. We don't want to see a reversal of the important progress Kentucky has made in terms of diverting kids away from incarceration instead of incarcerating kids,” she said.

The legislature will be back in session for two final days, March 29-30.

Correction: A previous version of this article provided an incorrect detail regarding remaining days in the legislative session.

Divya Karthikeyan covers Race & Equity for LPM.
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