Multiplying trauma: Kentucky set to add more kids to its troubled juvenile jails Skip to content

Multiplying trauma: Kentucky set to add more kids to its troubled juvenile jails

Against the advice of experts, Republicans increased penalties for juveniles. Sarah Ladd looks at the trauma that awaits our children in our troubled juvenile justice system.

7 min read

A state law taking effect next month will require more kids charged with violent offenses to be held in Kentucky’s troubled juvenile jails — at a time when all eight of the youth detention centers are under federal investigation for possible abuses.

That worries Devine Carama, who directs the One Lexington program to tackle gun violence in Fayette County.  

“In no other system would you allow that,” said Carama. “If there’s an investigation that’s this deep and wide, and it’s coming from a federal perspective, I don’t think the time is (right) to implement policy that puts more young people into the system.”

Courtney Downs
Courtney Downs (photo provided)

Cortney Downs, chief equity officer for Kentucky Youth Advocates, agrees that it doesn’t make sense to place more children in a system that’s troubled enough for the federal government to be investigating it.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last month that it is investigating Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for possible excessive use of force, prolonged and punitive isolation, inadequate protection from violence and sexual abuse, as well as whether mental health and educational services are available to juveniles in eight detention centers and one youth development center.

The federal investigation follows reports in recent years of understaffing and  violence, including a riot in the Adair Youth Detention Center during which a girl in state custody was allegedly sexually assaulted and a report that employees were attacked at a youth detention center in Warren County. State Auditor Allison Ball in January issued a report that raised multiple concerns including the use of isolation, tasers and chemical agents against juveniles.

Black youth are overrepresented in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, the Lantern has reported.  

Downs also worries about another new state law that will allow more minors to be tried as adults and that could increase the number of juveniles in detention. 

“These facilities are still understaffed,” she said. “And so if you’re bringing in more kids, but you don’t have more staff to supervise these kids, manage these kids, we could potentially just continue seeing more of the same issues that we have been seeing.”

The mandatory 48-hour hold for some accused juveniles was approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Andy Beshear in 2023 as part of broader juvenile justice legislation. Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, tried to delay its implementation this year in a bill that did not pass.  

As a result, the state must soon detain juveniles who, under the previous law, could have been deemed eligible for release to their families while awaiting a detention hearing.

Morgan Hall, a spokesperson for the Justice & Public Safety Cabinet, said the federal investigation “does not alter current state law.” 

The system has increased employees from 315 to 458 in the last year in preparation for the juvenile population bump, though Hall said “it is difficult to anticipate the potential impact in population numbers” right now. 

The department is also “actively recruiting” licensed clinical social workers to provide required mental health assessments for those coming into the system charged with violent crimes, Hall said. 

“The Beshear administration remains focused on creating safe and secure facilities while making the investments needed to support our at-risk youth in mental health treatment, alternatives to detention, second chance opportunities, education, and employee training,” Hall said.  

‘Apples and oranges’ 

Through One Lexington, Carama works with youth who are considered high risk for entering a cycle of violence. Risk factors, identified by school officials, include poverty, food insecurity or having come from a background of violence or a fatherless home. Those children are then partnered with a peer mentor who can give them a sense of community and fill gaps in their lives.

Homicides and nonfatal shootings dropped significantly in Lexington in 2023, the Herald-Leader reported. The decline in violent crime was widespread across the country; still, Lexington officials attribute at least part of the drop in shootings to One Lexington’s work. 

Devine Carama heads up One Lexington, where he works with youth and the broader community to end the cycle of violence. (Photo provided)

Having a mentor like One Lexington offers would have helped Louisville’s Jaquan Porter who was 14, he says, when he was arrested and incarcerated for robbery. He feels his childhood lacked guidance. 

Porter stayed in the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system until he was 17. In his alternative program, staff dropped him off at school in a van and picked him up at the end of the day. Now 25, he just got his driver’s license and high school diploma, and plans to start college this fall. 

He’s well on his way to building the life he wants, but he feels like formative teenage years were robbed from him by a system he says failed him on multiple levels. 

Porter isn’t proud of his actions as a young teenager, but, at the time, he said, he didn’t see a way around it. 

The Louisville boy needed food and clothes. So, he stole. 

“I had to worry about survival,” he said. “When I was 14, I was worried about surviving more than being a kid.” 

“I was teaching myself while learning,” he said. While DJJ provided his life with some structure, he said, he left feeling alone again and not equipped to handle the real world.

They’re not passing down pistols as family heirlooms (in the) East End in Lexington. It’s trauma that's being passed down.

– Devine Carama, director One Lexington

Carama says Kentucky should develop juvenile justice policy from a trauma-informed perspective.

“When I go to Frankfort, I hear a lot of lawmakers talk about their upbringing,” he said. “I hear a lot of people reference gun culture in rural areas and use that to compare some of these kids who are growing up in urban areas and I think those are two mistakes. Because, one, it’s apples and oranges.” 

Gun culture in the country and city are “totally different,” Carama said. 

In rural areas, “they’re passing down pistols as family heirlooms. There is wildlife in their immediate surroundings to where hunting is a sport, a family tradition,” Carama said. “They’re not passing down pistols as family heirlooms (in the) East End in Lexington. It’s trauma that’s being passed down. There is no hunting that’s happening in the west end of Louisville.” 

The rate of firearm deaths among Kentucky youth and adolescents was already higher than the national rate when it increased 42% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

Before the pandemic, 2017-2019, there were 3.3 firearm deaths per 100,000 Kentucky kids. From 2020-2022, that increased to 4.7. 

Nationally, the rate increased from 2.4 per 100,000 kids in 2019 to 3.5 in 2022. 

Stigma feeds the cycle 

One Lexington is starting to see more second-generation youth who get involved in gun violence, Carama said. Sometimes that looks like a 5-year-old whose parent was shot growing into a teenager who turns to crime. 

“I think it’s the way trauma works,” Carama said. Some people who experience a trauma try to avoid a similar fate at all costs. Others lean into what they know, he said. “A lot of times, you become the very thing that has destroyed you and your family.” 

One way to break the cycle, Carama said, is to destigmatize mental health issues. 

“There is a physical and mental health lack of access” in some communities, he said. And: “There’s a stigma in brown and Black communities when it comes to mental health.”

I had to worry about survival. When I was 14, I was worried about surviving more than being a kid.

– Jaquan Porter

Prevention and early intervention are critical, Downs with KYA said. “The research has consistently said that the younger a child is when they get locked up or get involved with the justice system, the more likely they are to recidivate later in life,” Downs explained. 

Negative impacts of incarceration include missing out on educational or career opportunities, she said. 

Making sure people don’t view mental health with a stigmatized lens and making sure they have resources to work on their minds are key to breaking cycles of violence, Carama said.

Porter says he was diagnosed with several mental health issues, including anxiety, after his incarceration. 

While in the system, “I didn’t have (anyone) to call on,” he said. “It built up so much trauma to my life.” 

Even now, it’s difficult for him to look at the justice system positively, he said. “How can I depend on someone when they already let me down?” 

‘Significant negative impacts’ 

It’s “going to take a while” to finish the Justice Department investigation and develop and implement an improvement plan, Downs said. Meanwhile, more juveniles will be entering a system that’s failing them with “significant negative impacts on kids, on their mental health.”

“I’m glad that . . . something is potentially going to be done and that there’s going to be some oversight,” Downs said. “But it’s also just disappointing that things have been able to deteriorate as much as they have to the point where this is even needed.”

Porter now works with REFORM Louisville, a group within KYA that works to improve options for young people and advocate for good juvenile policy. He works with several community organizations to offer youth mentorship he lacked.

“Anything’s possible,” he said. “I went from having literally nothing to having a whole lot.  I pushed myself. I self-motivated…I never stopped, I never gave up.”


Written by Sarah Ladd. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.

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Kentucky Lantern

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.