Nine-month report on DJJ reveals issues, recommendations

Published 8:00 am Thursday, July 20, 2023

Last week, a committee of state legislators heard the results of a nine-month investigation into the Department of Juvenile Justice.

After an August 2022 incident involving several fires and an escape from Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center, the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee asked for an investigation into the detention center.

A few months later, after a November riot at Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center leading to several physical assaults, the committee expanded the investigation to each of the Commonwealth’s eight regional juvenile justice detention centers.

Juveniles stay in these centers while awaiting trial or diversion hearings, said William Spears, a committee analyst who testified about the report results.

Spears and fellow committee analyst Jeremy Skinner shared a plethora of recommendations for the DJJ based on eleven specific issues they looked into.

First, they looked specifically into what caused the two main incidents in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers.

The use of a building with inadequate security and a breakdown in supervision allowing a juvenile to bring in a lighter to the center led to the August fire escape, Spears said.

The issue was exacerbated by extreme staffing challenges at the center, which had 14 vacancies in May 2020 and 19 in May 2023.

The inmate booking system, which doesn’t require consistent reporting of tattoos and other potential gang affiliation clues, was one of the causes of the November riot, Spears said.

Three individuals who were part of the same transfer and Louisville gang were not separated at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center, and ended up working together to start the riot.

“If information had been entered consistently, staff may have been able to identify the security risk despite the timeframe,” Spears said.

The investigation also touched ten other areas, including the effectiveness of DJJ oversight, the adequacy of its internal reporting and investigation and staff concerns.

The committee’s list of 30 final recommendations included:

  • addressing building security concerns;
  • working with local and state law enforcement to receive training on how to identify and deal with gang members;
  • digitization of the internal reporting system to streamline and simplify the process so that data can be more efficiently used for real-time correctional action and policy making;
  • requiring information on tattoos and other potential gang affiliation identifications to be reported during intake;
  • focus on year-round oversight, instead of solely focusing on annual audits by the American Correctional Association and the Prison Rape Elimination Act;
  • ensuring incident report forms are fully completed;
  • expanding contracts with mental health providers and looking into other options, like a potential psychiatric hospital for juveniles modeled after South Carolina;
  • reviewing every staff grievance report at least once; and
  • monitoring the overtime and scheduling of employees to avoid burnout, as well as how often non-hazardous employees are taking on hazardous roles.

The committee voted unanimously to adopt the report.

Kerry Harvey, secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, and DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed responded to the report results.

They agreed on most of the conclusions, and all of the substantive ones, Harvey said.

“There’s been a lot of work involved in that on both sides,” he said. “I think we’ve opened the books. We’ve been transparent. We’ve made no effort to hide anything. And it’s been a good process because of that, and I think it’s a productive report because of the work of your staff and because of the work of mine.”

During the 2023 legislative session, the General Assembly passed several bills aimed at improving the DJJ’s processes.

House Bill 3 requires juveniles with violent felony offenses to by detained for up to 48 hours beginning July 2024.

Senate Bill 162 required the DJJ to contract with mental health providers to make sure all juvenile with mental illness or serious emotional disturbances have access to mental health professionals while in crisis.

Combined, the two bills provided more than $75 million to improve multiple areas within the system, including salaries, automation, security, diversion programs, transportation and operations.

Harvey suggested that although frontline correctional staff starting salaries have increased to $50,000 from $30,000, it still might not be enough to attract sufficient staffing.

“If you’re not competitive in the market, you’re going to fail and maintaining an adequate workforce,” he said.

“…It will take time to get where we need to be on that and even when we get our numbers up, we’re still gonna have a lot of a lack of experience because we’ve had so much turnover. We’re hiring people now, but obviously they’re all new people. So we’re on the we’re on the road, but we’re not where we need to be on that.”