Justice Department announces investigation into conditions at juvenile detention centers in Kentucky

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The investigation will look into the conditions at the eight youth detention centers and one youth development center

KENTUCKY (ABC36 NEWS NOW) — The Justice Department has launched a civil investigation into the conditions at eight youth detention centers and one youth development center run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.  

This probe encompasses eight youth detention centers and one youth development center. The investigation aims to assess whether Kentucky adequately safeguards children in these facilities from various forms of harm, including excessive force by staff, prolonged isolation, and insufficient protection from violence and sexual abuse.

In a DOJ statement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke emphasized the importance of ensuring safe and humane conditions for children in juvenile justice facilities. She stated that confinement in such facilities should facilitate rehabilitation and reform, rather than expose children to dangerous or traumatic conditions. The investigation will also scrutinize whether Kentucky provides adequate mental health care and necessary special education services to children with disabilities.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bennett for the Western District of Kentucky expressed readiness to protect the rights of all children, including those in juvenile detention. “We look forward to partnering with the Civil Rights Division and our colleagues in the Eastern District to conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these allegations,” said Bennett. The investigation, focusing on detention centers where children await court hearings, seeks to address concerns raised about potential systemic violations of young people’s rights.

This investigation will focus on detention centers, which primarily hold children awaiting a court hearing. Nationally, detention centers admit nearly 200,000 children every year, holding approximately 16,000 youth on any given night. The average length of stay for a child in detention is 27 days. Research shows that even far shorter stays can have profound and potentially lifelong negative consequences for children.

The Justice Department clarified that it has not drawn conclusions regarding the allegations but is conducting the investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. These statutes grant the department authority to probe systemic violations of the rights of young people in juvenile justice facilities.

The investigation is being led by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section in collaboration with the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Western and Eastern Districts of Kentucky. Individuals with pertinent information are encouraged to reach out to the department via phone or email.

The Beshear Administration has also responded after the announcement.

“Over the past four years, the administration has enacted the most extensive reforms to the Department of Juvenile Justice since its inception. These reforms include separating males and females into different facilities, separating those accused of significant crimes from status and lower-level offenders, providing significant raises to boost staffing and upgrading security. We have also required more training, created a compliance branch to monitor all facilities and have hired more psychologists, social workers and security experts,” said Gov. Beshear. “While the General Assembly has provided some help, it recently failed to fund two needed detention facilities, as well as a specialized residence for juveniles with extensive mental illness. Funding was also denied for additional safety improvements. The Department of Juvenile Justice will cooperate with the Department of Justice while also strongly advocating for the safety of its staff.”

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Keith Jackson also responding.

“Every juvenile placed in the custody of the state deserves to be safe. We have made progress on the security of our juvenile facilities; we have trained our personnel, protected juveniles and staff against violent attacks and taken corrective action against employee misconduct,” said Secretary Jackson. “We look forward to being able to talk to the Department of Justice, because as of today, no members of our leadership have been interviewed, and we have not had the opportunity to discuss any incident, policy or issue with the Department of Justice.”

For a full list of steps taken by the Beshear administration to reform the Department of Juvenile Justice, click here.

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