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Former Louisville juvenile court judge weighs in on detention center potentially reopening

Judge David Holton, now retired, served on the bench for about 10 years. He cautions that the rebound will have to come with more resources.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A former judge who once presided over juvenile court in Louisville is optimistic about the potential move to bring back the Juvenile Detention Center downtown.

Judge David Holton, now retired, served on the bench for about 10 years.

“The hardest assignment I had was the juvenile court judge,” Holton said. “It's so heart-wrenching, it's so sad to see kids who have done things that ruin their lives.”

He said the number of youth crimes isn't drastically different than before the detention center closed in 2019, but said the closure was a step in the completely wrong direction.

“It was a case of balancing the budget of the county government on the backs of the young people,” Holton said.

Kentucky lawmakers said they are looking to bring back Louisville's downtown juvenile detention center, and they have a plan to make it happen.

In Frankfort on Thursday, State Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R-D29) and other lawmakers from Louisville proposed an $8.9 million package to be included in House Bill 3. It'll be heard when the legislative session resumes next Tuesday.

The plan is to reconstruct a state-run youth detention facility at the old location on West Jefferson. It was previously run by the city before getting cut from the budget in 2019, forcing a closure.

Bratcher said Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, Interim Police Chief Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel and Deputy Mayor David James support the initiative. The state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) workgroup leaders met with them earlier this week.

Bratcher said city officials agree, youth crime has become one of the primary drivers of violence in Louisville -- from carjackings to shootings.

"The police of Louisville have been asking for it, the clergy of Louisville has been asking for it," Bratcher said. "If we don't get a grip on juvenile crime in Louisville, we're not going to get a grip on the crime wave in Louisville."

After his State of the City address Thursday, Greenberg told WHAS11 he backs lawmakers' push.

"Our city will put together a partnership to provide other services to juveniles who find themselves ensnared in the legal system, so we can get them the support and services they need," he said. "It is unfortunate the amount of juvenile crime that's happening in our city -- it is far too much. This is just one part of the solution."

There are still plenty of question marks, including whether the General Assembly would even choose to fund the effort as they reconvene in Frankfort on Tuesday.

Bratcher hopes they can rearrange funds within the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet or possibly have a budget item, despite it not being a budget year. He hopes the center will have more than 50 beds for youth offenders and abundant mental health services on site.

"The city of Louisville has services to provide these children who commit some bad crimes, and they have told me many times they're caught and released before they have a chance to even sit down and talk to the child," Bratcher said. "So, you know, that's got to change. Hopefully by the end of this session there will be one on the way."

Holton told WHAS11 that the state should have always paid for Louisville's detention center, and so he's glad to see that proposed funding change.

Holton also cautioned the rebound will have to come with more resources, including mental health and increased staffing.

"I'm hopeful that the facility be built here again because I think it's better for the kids to be here, closer to their family," he said. "But in the end, the real results, the proof would be in the pudding about what kind of services the state puts into the facility here."

The proposal came as juvenile detention centers across the state have cited major staffing shortages. Bratcher says he's recommending Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear start a new program to bring back retired troopers to work as youth workers -- potentially in Louisville.

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