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U.S. Department of Justice investigating Kentucky juvenile detention conditions

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into the conditions at eight of the youth detention centers and one development center in the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. 

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(photo by KY Department of Justice)

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into the conditions at eight of the youth detention centers and one development center in the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. 

“The investigation will examine whether Kentucky protects children confined in these facilities from harm caused by excessive force by staff, prolonged and punitive isolation and inadequate protection from violence and sexual abuse,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “The investigation will also examine whether Kentucky provides adequate mental health services and required special education and related services to children with disabilities.” 

U.S. Attorney Mike Bennett for the Western District of Kentucky said in a statement that he “stands ready to protect the rights of all children in Kentucky, including those who end up in juvenile detention” and will work to “conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these allegations.”

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Keith Jackson said in a statement Monday afternoon that “every juvenile placed in the custody of the state deserves to be safe. We have made progress on the security of our juvenile facilities; we have trained our personnel, protected juveniles and staff against violent attacks and taken corrective action against employee misconduct.” 

“We look forward to being able to talk to the Department of Justice, because as of today, no members of our leadership have been interviewed, and we have not had the opportunity to discuss any incident, policy or issue with the Department of Justice,” Jackson said. 

In a video posted to the Justice website Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the investigators will “review whether there are unconstitutional conditions including use of unreasonable physical and chemical force by staff, inappropriate use of isolation, failure to protect children from physical and sexual abuse and adequate mental health care.”

Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, reports of violence in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system regularly made headlines, including a riot in Adair County during which a girl in state custody was allegedly sexually assaulted and employees were attacked at a youth detention center in Warren County. DJJ has also faced persistent staffing issues, the Lantern has reported. 

This session, West Kentucky Republican Sen. Danny Carroll asked his colleagues to build a $22 million special mental health juvenile detention facility as well as create a process to test and treat such children. His bill also would have delayed a requirement for a 48-hour mandatory detention, which came out of 2023 legislation. (The 48-hour hold for some juveniles charged with violent crimes is set to go into effect this July).

Carroll’s proposal did not make it into the final two-year state budget.

“While the General Assembly has provided some help, it recently failed to fund two needed detention facilities, as well as a specialized residence for juveniles with extensive mental illness,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a statement reacting to the Justice investigation. “Funding was also denied for additional safety improvements. The Department of Juvenile Justice will cooperate with the Department of Justice while also strongly advocating for the safety of its staff.”  

Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said “the Senate remains committed to addressing these serious issues” in DJJ.

Our consistent advocacy for policy reforms and budget enhancements aims to rectify the ongoing crisis within the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Givens said in a statement. “It is disheartening that such measures are necessary, but we hope the impending federal investigation will serve as a crucial wake-up call for the Beshear administration. This is an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the welfare of Kentucky’s troubled youth and to ensure the safety of the staff in these facilities.”

Second time feds involved 

The investigation is the second time federal justice authorities have examined conditions in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system after allegations of serious abuse and mistreatment of youths.

In 1995, after an extensive review of conditions in the state’s system for housing and treating youths found guilty of crimes, the U.S. Justice Department found the state had violated their civil rights and placed the state under a federal consent decree aimed at reforms.

The investigation followed months of reports of mistreatment of youths and other problems by the Courier Journal and other news outlets.

Violations federal officials cited at the time included abuse and mistreatment of youths housed in centers, poor or no investigations of complaints, overuse of isolation cells, lack of adequate medical and psychiatric treatment and aging, run-down facilities.

The 1995 federal investigation focused mainly on treatment facilities where youths were sent after a judge had determined they had committed offenses, while the investigation announced Wednesday focuses largely on detention facilities where youths are held while charges are pending.

But the resolution of the 1995 investigation led to sweeping changes in both the state’s juvenile treatment and detention systems, hailed at the time as a major advance in reforms.

Under pressure from the consent decree, in 1996, the Kentucky General Assembly created the Department of Juvenile Justice to oversee treatment facilities, pumping millions of dollars into upgrades. Previously, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services had overseen care of youths who committed offenses.

And the state undertook a separate upgrade of the detention system where many youths previously had been held in adult jails in violation of federal guidelines, instead creating a separate system of regional detention centers for youths.

In 2001, then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno held a press conference in Frankfort to announce her department was lifting the 1995 consent decree, citing the substantial improvement to the system.

Kentucky, at the time, had created “an example for the rest of the nation,” said Reno, who served as attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

But at the time, officials warned Kentucky must work to avoid a return to the problems of the early 1990s through vigilance and adequate resources.

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Written by Sarah Ladd and Deborah Yetter. 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.

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