FRANKFORT, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday announced plans to revamp Kentucky's troubled juvenile detention system by assigning male teenagers to facilities based on the severity of their offenses.
The new classification system — for male juveniles ages 14 and older — is aimed at enhancing safety in a system struggling with violent outbursts. A riot broke out last month at one Kentucky juvenile detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded.
Beginning in 2023, the new system will place male juveniles charged with serious crimes in a high-security facility, Beshear said at his weekly news conference. It will replace a decades-old regional system that has placed juveniles in detention facilities based on where they live.
For a system now dealing with more violent youths, that regional model can result in a juvenile charged with murder being housed next to someone held for truancy, he said.
“That’s made it incredibly difficult, because we have seen disruption after disruption and violence from those that are charged with these higher-level crimes,” the Democratic governor said.
State officials are working to determine where male juveniles charged with the most violent crimes will be housed, Beshear said. Those youths in state custody for lower-level offenses will be housed in lower-security facilities, he added.
"What this will allow us to do is to better provide safety, because higher-security facilities will ensure that we can keep better order,” the governor said.
Juveniles held at state detention centers receive education, counseling and recreational opportunities. But the outbreak of violence has caused disruptions in those services.
Another step being taken will ensure that detention center staff members have the “protective equipment” in the event of a disturbance, the governor's office said in a news release. It didn't specify what that equipment will include.
Now, the state doesn't have "policies in place that allow us to quickly restore order," Beshear said.
In November, several young people and staff were wounded in the disturbance at the detention center in Adair County. It began when a juvenile assaulted a staff member, took the employee’s keys and released other young people from their cells, state police said. Order was restored after state police troopers and other law enforcement officers entered the facility in south-central Kentucky.
The governor said last week that a state police investigation was continuing and he expects it to result in “significant charges,” noting a staff member was hospitalized with injuries.
In another policy shift, the governor said last week that the state's first female-only juvenile detention center will open in Campbell County to better protect females placed in detention.
Beshear said Thursday that the latest changes won't be easy, stressing that “this isn't the end” but instead represents the “emergency steps” that are needed.
“What I hope you see today is a responsive government that when something has gotten out of control says we have to do something," the governor said. "And I’m sure it’s not perfect. And we’ll learn along the way the changes that we need to make. But I absolutely have to act ... for the safety of both our state employees and these juveniles themselves.”
The governor's latest announcement drew a skeptical response from a key lawmaker who cited staffing shortages in the juvenile detention system.
“No idea how this is a workable solution without a lot more staff (who are paid well enough),” Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a leading voice on juvenile justice issues, said Thursday on social media.