Commentary

Kentucky’s juvenile justice challenges cannot be solved through incarceration alone

Best options: prevention, rehabilitation and caring for these children as if they were our own

February 16, 2023 5:40 am

A review of the Department of Juvenile Justice found “​​disorganization across facilities” and a “lack of leadership from the Beshear Administration,” Republican Auditor Allison Ball said Wednesday. (Photo by Getty Images)

It takes just two words to summarize the deeply troubling problems facing Kentucky’s juvenile justice system: systemwide failure.  This is not an indictment of any administration, party, branch of government, or group of children’s advocates.  It’s an indictment of all of us.

For years, Kentucky’s system has let down far too many justice-involved youth by failing to provide adequate health, educational, and social services; by ignoring dire warnings of staffing shortages that led to dangerous environments for youth and workers; and by demonizing youth in the system with false and dehumanizing portrayals of them as super predators.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has been led by six different commissioners in the past seven years, and since 2012 not one commissioner has served more than two years.  Three separate oversight committees have been established as part of the juvenile justice system’s structure, and yet we got to the current state of crisis under their watch.

The latest in a series of failures has been the suggestions that the challenges within the Department of Juvenile Justice can best be addressed by updating facilities, detaining more youth, and arming staff.

We’ve been down this path before.  In 1995, the federal government intervened because of complaints that the state’s juvenile-detention centers were overusing solitary confinement and limiting access to health care — two issues very much at the heart of today’s crisis.  One reformer of 30 years ago warned prophetically that the commonwealth’s approach to juvenile justice historically has been to “reform and forget.”

We cannot afford to reform and forget again.  Instead, we must commit ourselves to bringing together all three branches of government, stakeholders, affected youth and their families, and children’s advocates.  We must act collectively to find long-term solutions and then hold one another accountable – year after year.  There is simply no other way, if we want to get it right.

Because of our prior work and advocacy for justice-involved youth and for children’s mental health, we were selected last month to join a bipartisan legislative work group to explore current conditions within Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, and to provide recommendations for change.   We recognize the broad and systemic failures that brought us to this point, and we remain committed to working across the political aisle for short and long-term change.

As part of our service on the work group, we visited the youth detention center in Adair County, where news media have reported severe mistreatment of youth, serious injuries to youth and staff, and a riot last November.

We observed severe staffing shortages, resulting in juveniles being forced to spend virtually all of their time in their cells.  Round-the-clock confinement has limited these young people’s access to educational services, and it is our understanding that detained youth have no access to appropriate exercise or mental health services.  Adding to the trauma of confinement, many of these youth are now hours away from their families since the state now groups detainees by the severity of their charge rather than by where they live.

We agree that new and updated facilities must be part of whatever solutions are enacted, including re-opening a detention center in Jefferson County.  We support increased salaries for DJJ workers. We dispute legislative attempts to remove judicial discretion in adjudicating cases.

There are critical components still missing from this discussion, however, which is why we are filing legislation to fill those gaps.

We propose a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Children to protect the safety, well-being, and fundamental humanity of justice-involved youth, and their rights to legal counsel, medical, educational, mental health, and other supportive services.

We propose a citizen-led oversight group to review whether the state took appropriate action at every step between a juvenile’s entry and exit from the justice system.

We also propose dedicated funding for prevention strategies, community-based services, alternatives to detention, and supports for youth who exit the system.

Lifelines like these will reduce the likelihood that today’s detained juveniles will become tomorrow’s prisoners.  To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

Kentucky’s juvenile justice challenges cannot be solved through incarceration alone.  Our best options — morally, fiscally, and in the interest of public safety — lie in prevention, rehabilitation, and caring for these children as if they were our own.

Kentuckians should demand nothing less.

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Keturah Herron
Keturah Herron

Keturah Herron of Louisville represents District 41 in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

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Lisa Willner
Lisa Willner

Lisa Willner of Louisville represents District 35 in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

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