Auditor says juvenile justice review shows ‘lack of leadership’ from Beshear administration

Department of Juvenile Justice, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet not given chance to respond to audit before publishing

By: - January 31, 2024 2:10 pm

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)

FRANKFORT — A review of Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice found “​​disorganization across facilities” and a “lack of leadership from the Beshear Administration,” Republican Auditor Allison Ball said Wednesday.

However, an administration spokesperson said neither the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) nor the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet was given the opportunity to review the audit findings or respond before it was published.

The audit, released Wednesday, began under the previous auditor, Republican Mike Harmon. Concerns in the department have been raised by Republicans in Frankfort after reports of violence and understaffing in the juvenile justice system have made headlines. 

Republican Auditor candidate Allison Ball waves to the crowd during the 143rd Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

CGL Management Group was contracted by the auditor’s office to review the department. The report’s executive summary highlighted juvenile detention facilities are “significantly understaffed,” leading to “high levels of overtime” that “negatively impact recruitment and retention.” It also found the Detention Division of DJJ “lacks a unified strategic direction,” as facilities and major departments are operating in “silos” and “conflicting communication” led to confusion “regarding its detention mission.” 

Ball said in a statement that she was “alarmed” by the report’s findings, but remained “hopeful this will provide clear direction for the numerous improvements needed within our juvenile justice system and open the door for accountability and action within DJJ.”

“The state of the Department of Juvenile Justice has been a concern across the Commonwealth and a legislative priority over the past several years,” Ball said. “The findings from this review demonstrate a lack of leadership from the Beshear Administration which has led to disorganization across facilities, and as a result, the unacceptably poor treatment of Kentucky youth.”

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Communications Director Morgan Hall said in a statement that the auditor’s office did not provide DJJ or the cabinet with a copy of the audit until late Wednesday morning.

“Unlike the previous administration, we’ve started making sweeping improvements to the juvenile justice system, including making it a priority to protect staff and juveniles and create secure facilities by increasing staffing levels,” Hall said.

She referred to steps the Beshear administration has taken to reclassify youth workers as correctional officers and raising the starting salary of youth workers in detention centers to $50,000 annually. Hall said “great strides” had been made in hiring at facilities in Fayette, Boyd and Breathitt counties, making those facilities almost fully staffed.

“In the past year, as a result of the administration’s efforts, we have increased frontline correctional officers by 63%,” Hall said. She said that’s the “highest number DJJ has employed in recent history, and we are continuing to recruit and retain to further secure our facilities.”

Joy Markland, communications director for the auditor’s office, said in response that the office sent the report to the cabinet secretary and DJJ commissioner “as a courtesy” because it was not required by law. Legislation passed last session, which was signed by Beshear required the report be provided to the Legislative Research Commission once completed.

“It is disingenuous for the Beshear administration to complain about not being given advance notice of these findings when many of the issues are essentially the same as those from a previously conducted audit performed by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in 2017,” Markland added.

The report’s executive summary also found: 

  • Department isolation policies and practices “are inconsistently defined, applied, and in conflict with nationally recognized best practices.” 
  • The department’s use of force practices do not align with common juvenile detention practices and “are poorly deployed and defined.” Chemical agents, tasers and other security control devices were introduced “without a policy in place.” 
  • The department does not have a “clear, evidence-based behavior management model” to manage youth in detention. 
  • The review firm found medical and mental records showed direct services provided to youth patients met expected standards, but “there was a lack of appropriate documentation in many of the files.” Additionally, on-site reviews of mental and physical health services showed “chronic staffing challenges, poor workload balancing, lack of consistent operational practices, and inefficiencies associated with the use of a problematic medical record system” created an environment that could not accommodate challenges in delivering health care. 
  • Moving from a regional detention model created “continuity of care issues” for the population in DJJ. 
  • Staff training mirrors national standards, but the implementation is “ineffective.” 
  • The department policy manual does not have “clarity and consistency,” which can lead to “misunderstanding and may negatively impact agency performance and operations.” 
  • The department does not have an “effective quality assurance program” to support its mission and meet expectations. 
  • The department’s youth information management systems had “limited functionality and inadequate reporting capabilities.” This affected DJJ’s access to performance metrics and understanding of operations. 
  • The department has not operationalized findings from a 2017 report from the Center for Children’s Law and Poverty

Calls for change

Last year, Republican lawmakers called on the auditor’s office to lead a full performance audit. Beshear welcomed the audit if it was conducted in a non-political way. 

Gov. Andy Beshear delivers the State of the Commonwealth address on Jan. 3, 2024. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

GOP legislators have been critical of Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Kerry Harvey and former Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Vicki Reed. Harvey is set to retire Thursday and Reed left the department earlier this month. Both were appointed by Beshear in August 2021.  

Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, reports of violence in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system regularly made headlines, including a riot in Adair County during which a girl in state custody was allegedly sexually assaulted and employees were attacked at a youth detention center in Warren County. DJJ has also faced persistent staffing issues

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-​​Greensburg, said in a Wednesday statement lawmakers have read previous reports that “uncovered tragic situations surrounding Kentucky youth and staff in state facilities” and have heard directly from whistleblowers who have “long known there has been an absence of leadership in the executive branch in this arena. ” Givens sponsored legislation last session calling for an independent audit of DJJ.

“We remain resolved to help fill that void because, in the absence of leadership, a problem sadly became a crisis,” Givens said. “I look forward to analyzing the auditor’s report for a better understanding of the depth of the crisis.”

Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, of Louisville, also criticized the Beshear administration, saying “Kentucky’s most vulnerable children deserve better” and added the system does not have “any real leadership strategic direction to finding a solution.”

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, who co-chaired a workgroup that focused on juvenile justice last year, said information in Wednesday’s report will be helpful as lawmakers continue to focus on juvenile justice challenges. He remiained “optimistic about the conversations and collaborative efforts I am having with those within DJJ, the Kentucky Justice Cabinet and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.”

Beshear signed two bipartisan bills into law aimed at improving the juvenile justice system. One allocated $20 million to renovate and operate a youth detention center in Jefferson County and the other provided more than $50 million for salaries, retention, new workers and security upgrades, including $30 million for workers in the adult corrections system. 

The governor previously announced several changes to the department, including establishing a female-only juvenile facility in Campbell County, separating male juveniles by level of offense, expanding the department’s transportation branch, raising salaries and more. 

Hall provided a copy of a seven-page policy to allow defensive equipment, including pepper spray and tasers, in the department that went into effect earlier this month. Reed had given approval.

“Prior to deployment of the equipment, standard operating procedures had been implemented and all staff had been trained,” Hall added.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional comments. 

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.