Sounding the alarm: Auditor Ball on the DJJ audit
Published 2:42 pm Friday, February 2, 2024
The results of a four-month audit into Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice are in, and they are bleak.
State Auditor Allison Ball released the findings Wednesday.
How did we get here?
Back in 2022, a riot at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center, including the sexual assault of a teenage girl, made headlines.
It was one example of a statewide crisis in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers, including inappropriate use of isolation, neglect of physical and mental health and significant understaffing.
In 2023, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill allocating $55 million for reforms, including nearly $10 million for staffing and information technology costs and $38 million for salary increases to recruit and retain more correctional officers.
The reforms also included:
- moving DJJ back to a regional model;
- ensuring segregation of males and females and violent and nonviolent offenders;
- creating a centralized data tracking system;
- increasing the availability of mental health treatment; and
- reorganizing the DJJ’s structure to improve communication across silos.
The General Assembly also called for an independent audit of the DJJ, to be completed between September and December 2023.
Ball said that she thinks 2023 legislation may lead to some improvements, “but the fact that it’s as bad as it is, even when they’ve had all these months, I think shows that this is such a systemic problem, which they have had for years.”
What did the audit find?
There was little to no good news in the over 200-page audit. It found that almost none of the findings from a different, 2017 audit into the DJJ had been addressed.
That audit had identified overuse of isolation, insufficient mental health staffing and access to treatment, use of a punishment-based behavior management system and a lack of appropriate monitoring of youth prescribed medication, among other issues, as key problems in the department.
All of those issues remain, according to the 2023 audit.
In the last budget cycle, the General Assembly gave the DJJ $10 million more than they asked for, a fact Ball said is significant.
“It almost gives the appearance that it doesn’t matter how much money you pour into it because their behavior hasn’t changed,” she said. “This is really a behavior issue. It’s much more that than a resource issue.”
Isolation and use of force
According to national best practices, isolation should only be used as a last resort, or in cases in which a juvenile is an immediate threat to themselves or others.
However, DJJ often uses isolation preemptively, based on a child’s historical behavior, or as a punishment for uncooperative juveniles.
The audit found that in some cases, DJJ employees used remote video observation in place of the required in-person checks, and did not remove kids from isolation even after they regained self-control.
Another major finding is the DJJ’s inappropriate use of force, including use of pepper spray and tasers without a clear, consistent policy. This should also be a last resort, and not universally available to officers, according to best practices.
Ball said that Kentucky juvenile detention centers use of pepper spray is 73 times that of federal adult prisons.
“So this isn’t just a little bit excessive,” she said. “This is wildly out of what is reasonable.”
DJJ is significantly understaffed, with an average 25% vacancy rate across the state. The audit found that this understates the issue, considering that many of the current staff are new hires, who need extra supervision while they complete their training.
Understaffing leads to high rates of overtime, which subsequently hurts retention and recruitment efforts.
There is a particular shortage of staff providing mental and physical health services, the audit found.
Ball said that staffing was not the most significant issue highlighted in the audit.
“There is a staffing shortage because they have not been – it appears they’ve not been – using the money perhaps the most efficient ways,” she said.
Poor communication and culture issues
The audit found that most DJJ facilities operate independently, as silos, instead of working together under one common strategic mission.
On the Senate floor, Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, shared an audit finding that most DJJ officers did not know the mission of the department, why they were showing up to work.
Givens said that the DJJ problems are rooted in its culture.
“It really comes down to people and it comes down in this case, specifically to leadership,” he said. “…We can send money to it, we can hire staff, but until someone is responsible and changes the culture and provides some guidance for this organization, it’s not going to be fixed.”
Late last year, DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed resigned. Larry Chandler is serving as the interim commissioner until a replacement is found.
Givens said that Gov. Andy Beshear needs to hire someone who is “competent and capable of putting the puzzle pieces together,” and will hold themselves accountable for improving things quickly.
“Truly, I don’t think Governor Beshear is ill intended in this,” he said. “I just can’t understand why it hasn’t risen to a level of maximum priority in his administration.”
There were quite a few other problem areas in the audit report, available on the auditor’s website.
Kids told interviewers about frequent “movie days” when they were supposed to be getting an education.
A lack of adequate intake procedures meant that officers didn’t know what medications juveniles were taking or tracking their use.
Information management systems were not built for adequate reporting, leaving significant gaps in data and a lack of understanding of DJJ’s operations.
Ball said that it all comes back to leadership. She had a message for Beshear:
“You’ve known about these problems for a while. We just dug a little bit deeper and we found out that these problems are ongoing and in some cases are even worse than we thought before,” she directed to Beshear.
“Do something about this, fix these problems. These are some of the most vulnerable people in Kentucky and you have to fix this for the future.”