Justice Department to investigate Kentucky's juvenile jails after use of force, isolation complaints

The U.S. Department of Justice says it will investigate conditions in Kentucky’s youth detention centers

ByBRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press and DYLAN LOVAN Associated Press
May 15, 2024, 5:53 PM

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Federal investigators will examine conditions in Kentucky's youth detention centers and whether the state has done enough to protect juveniles housed there, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday.

The federal investigation follows a Kentucky auditor's report that said the state's juvenile justice system had ongoing problems with the use of force and isolation techniques in the detention centers.

“We are launching this investigation to ensure that children in Kentucky youth detention facilities are safe from harm, receive adequate mental health care and get appropriate special education services," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. "All children held in the custody of the state deserve safe and humane conditions that can bring about true rehabilitation and reform.”

The investigation will examine whether Kentucky protects the facilities' juveniles from excessive force by staff as well as from prolonged isolation, violence and sexual abuse, the Justice Department said. A federal lawsuit filed in January alleged two teenage girls held in a county facility were kept in isolation cells for weeks in unsanitary conditions, and one was kept in a padded cell with no toilet.

Federal investigators also will examine whether Kentucky provides adequate mental health services and required special education and related services to youth with disabilities, it said.

“Confinement in the juvenile justice system should help children avoid future contact with law enforcement and mature into law-abiding, productive members of society. Too often, juvenile justice facilities break our children, exposing them to dangerous and traumatic conditions,” said Clarke, who is with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The statewide investigation will review conditions at eight youth detention centers and one youth development center run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.

The state will cooperate with the federal investigation while also advocating "for the safety of its staff,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a statement.

Keith Jackson, the state's Justice and Public Safety secretary, added: “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.”

Beshear recently hired longtime state corrections executive Randy White to take over as the state's commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice. White's predecessor became a lightning rod for criticism as the state-operated system struggled to quell violent outbursts at detention centers.

Kentucky’s juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of youths accused of violent offenses. The result was a string of assaults, riots and escapes as well as incidents of abuse and neglect of youths at juvenile detention centers.

A riot broke out in 2022 at a detention center, causing injuries to young people and staff. Order was restored after state police and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. In another incident, some juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at another center.

Beshear responded with policy changes to try to quell the violence.

He announced, among other things, that youths accused of significant crimes would be separated from alleged lower-level offenders, and “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — was provided so detention center workers could defend themselves and others if attacked.

“Over the past four years, the administration has enacted the most extensive reforms to the Department of Juvenile Justice since its inception," the Democratic governor said Wednesday.

As the problems mounted, Kentucky lawmakers responded by appropriating money to boost salaries for juvenile justice employees, hire more correctional officers, improve security at detention centers and increase diversion and treatment services for detained youths.

Kentucky Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, a Republican, said Wednesday that he hoped the investigation would “serve as a crucial wake-up call” for Beshear's 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,” Givens said in a statement.