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FRANKFORT — Democrats pushed back against Republican criticism of the Beshear administration as the state Senate on Friday unanimously approved creation of a workgroup to investigate violence and dangerous working conditions in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers.
Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, sponsor of the resolution to create the 12-member workgroup, said the detention system, which he has been told houses fewer than 150 juveniles, is in “operational breakdown.”
“Someone else is going to have to be watchdogging what’s going on here,” Givens, R-Greensburg, told the Senate.
Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, countered that the legislature had failed to adequately fund the juvenile system, saying that until 15 months ago starting pay for employees in juvenile facilities was $14.22 an hour. The administration has increased the starting wage to $22.10 in an attempt to address the understaffing, said Thomas..
Thomas also said the numbers of juveniles in detention declined sharply during the pandemic with a corresponding decline in staff. When the number of offenders increased as the pandemic eased, staffing did not keep up, Thomas said..
Senators from both parties said the population of detained juveniles is more violent than in the past. Gov. Andy Beshear also has said the population of juvenile detainees is at its most violent ever.
Thomas said the state is dealing with “a different kind of offender than four years ago,” including many with ties to gangs.
Givens’ resolution calls for the workgroup to make recommendations to the legislature by Feb. 7.
Among the questions the group would answer is whether the Department of Juvenile Justice should be placed under the state Department of Corrections and whether the state should operate a juvenile detention facility in Louisville.
The resolution cites violence and riots at state-run facilities for juveniles in McCracken, Warren and Adair counties.
“We not only are having a crisis in our juvenile detention facilities across the commonwealth but we as policymakers can’t seem to get the information about what’s going on,” Givens told fellow senators on Thursday.
Senate Resolution 31 calls for an “immediate response legislative work group” to be created with members of the Senate and House of Representatives and up to four additional non-voting members appointed by each chamber.
The resolution says Louisville Metro closed its juvenile detention facility in 2020 as a result of budget cuts and began housing its juvenile offenders at an ill-equipped facility in suburban Jefferson County run by the state Department of Juvenile Justice. That facility in Lyndon was closed in November after rioting, employee injuries, fires and the escape of a juvenile, the resolution says.
The motion comes after another Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said on the floor Wednesday that he wrote a letter to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear about concerns with the state’s juvenile justice system and Beshear administration reform responses.
Schickel said the administration’s changes are creating a transportation burden. Law enforcement told him a male juvenile was taken into custody in Northern Kentucky and transported overnight to a Boyd County juvenile detention facility, a two and a half hour drive. Schickel said the juvenile was transported again to northern Kentucky to appear in court.
“This is just an unworkable situation and it is a breach of the agreement that was made 20 years ago that in exchange for counties closing down their facilities, the state would have a detention facility in every region of our state,” Schickel said.
Previously, Beshear announced that a Campbell County facility would be converted to house only females. The governor told reporters Thursday that a state-controlled transportation system is needed for juveniles to be housed in facilities across the state by their level of charges and separated by gender.
Beshear told reporters Thursday that he read Schickel’s letter and added that major changes must be made to the state’s juvenile justice system. The administration created a female-only facility and plans to house juveniles by level of offense, rather than closest to their home. Beshear said creating a transportation system within the Department of Juvenile Justice was discussed as part of those changes. He previously announced that juveniles could be housed separately before they appear in a court hearing, which typically takes 48 hours. After they are charged, they would then be transported to the appropriate facility.
“I don’t want law enforcement to have to drive two and a half hours,” the governor said. “But in this instance, if it meant that all of those girls are better protected for the moment, you know that’s something that I think that we can work with and address, but I still fully support creating the female-only juvenile justice center.”
On the floor Friday, Thomas said the recent changes by the administration are temporary “until we get a handle on it.”
In his Wednesday State of the Commonwealth Address, Beshear said his administration will ask the General Assembly to support higher salaries for employees of the juvenile justice system, upgrades to facilities and changes to state laws for reform. On Thursday, he said that it “would be better” if a male-only facility were in northern Kentucky and that was something he was willing to consider.
After the address, both Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters members of their chambers were working on legislation to address Kentucky’s juvenile justice system.
Osborne noted that the legislature approved pay raises in the most recent budget, but that a study from the Personnel Cabinet due in 2021 would give lawmakers insight on how to use funds in the future.
“There is a need for pay increases in juvenile justice and corrections, in lots of different areas,” he said. “But I think that you’d have to look at it in its entirety as opposed to trying to piecemeal it together and make some common sense out of it.”
Lantern editor Jamie Lucke contributed to this article.
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