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Senate bills on juvenile justice reform move to the House

From Nancy Royden, LRC

Frankfort, KY - Two criminal justice measures - Senate Bill 162 and Senate Bill 158 - advanced off the Senate floor Tuesday, and supporters say both bills would be catalysts for a comprehensive overhaul of Kentucky's troubled juvenile justice system.

Senate Bill 162 is based on the efforts of a legislative work group that began meeting in January to review ongoing issues in the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The group has toured facilities throughout the state and met with numerous officials from all levels of the government, including former employees.

The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, said the review revealed a myriad of problems within the department - severe understaffing, a culture of self-preservation in management, fear of retaliation on the frontlines, a lack of faith in leadership, a breakdown in communication, and a lack of services for youth with severe mental illness.

"Senate Bill 162 will not solve all these issues within DJJ," Carroll said. "But it will address the most pressing issues, and it will lay a foundation for additional changes to occur in the near future."

DJJ has faced greater scrutiny in response to rioting, fires and the rape of a juvenile in custody, and SB 162, which passed the Senate with unanimous support, is seeking a battery of reforms.

The legislation calls on the department to return to a regional model of detention that keeps youths closer to home and better segregates males from females and violent offenders from the non-violent population.

It would also create a compliance division within the department and place all eight of Kentucky's juvenile detention centers under one office with a lead supervisor who reports directly the commissioner.

Other provisions would improve data tracking, increase training and require DJJ to maintain treatment options for children with severe emotional disturbances or mental illness. The bill would also allocate millions of dollars to enhance salaries and improve staffing ratios inside facilities.

Elsewhere in the bill, lawmakers are seeking to strengthen oversight of the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Council.

"DJJ has become what they were created to stop, no questions about that," Carroll said. "All of the things that have been occurring are without a question, a recipe for disaster. And that disaster has manifested itself repeatedly over the past couple of years."

Senate Minority Floor Leader Gerald A. Neal, D-Louisville, said a lack of staffing has been one of the biggest reasons for problems at the juvenile detention centers, but added that there's no magic bullet.

"There is a degree of crisis associated with this," he said. "And I think that this bill offers what I would consider to be a prime opportunity. And what do I mean by that? Not just so that we can address this here, but it also shines a beacon on what's happening nationally as well."

Sen. Robin L. Webb, D-Grayson, encouraged lawmakers to find a tailor-made approach that best suits the needs of both urban and rural children, helping them get back on track and avoid adult corrections.

"I just hope as we move forward with what we are creating that we look at data-driven policies in juvenile justice," Webb said.

Tuesday's second juvenile justice measure - Senate Bill 158 - also won broad, bipartisan support on the floor.

Senate Pro Tem David P. Givens, R-Greensburg, who is the primary sponsor of the bill, said it calls for an independent performance review of DJJ detention facilities to be completed by mid-October.

Having access to employees is vital to getting a realistic idea of how things are going within the facilities, he said.

"There's a lot of concern that fact-finding can't happen in an atmosphere of oppression. And sadly enough, the culture and atmosphere in these facilities has been, 'Don't tell. Don't talk.' That's creating part of the culture problem in these facilities," he said.

Both bills now head to the House for consideration.

This story was posted on 2023-03-08 09:41:46
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