Kentucky will open its first female-only juvenile detention center as part of efforts to defuse the risks of violence that escalated into a riot at a youth facility, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday.
A 35-bed detention center in northern Kentucky will be converted into the center, the governor said. Starting this month, female juveniles placed in detention by the courts will be housed at the Newport facility, with some limited exceptions, state justice and public safety officials said.
The action comes in response to last month's riot at a juvenile detention center in Adair County. In the wake of the riot, Kentucky State Police are investigating a reported sexual assault in the females-only wing of the facility, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
“What we've also seen are crimes against our female juveniles that have occurred during some of these riots or violent encounters," Beshear said Thursday. "While our female juveniles are in separate parts, and we attempt to make them secure parts of these facilities, that is not enough."
Other changes to the state's juvenile detention system could be announced as soon as next week, with the goal of providing a “significant additional level of protection” for juveniles and staff, the Democratic governor said at his weekly news conference.
Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield said later Thursday that additional investments in the juvenile justice system are long overdue, and can alter the trajectory of young lives and strengthen public safety. Westerfield has been a leading voice in promoting juvenile justice legislation.
He said the “security failures” at the Adair County facility were “abhorrent and unacceptable,” adding bluntly that he's surprised “these types of situations do not occur more frequently.”
“While I applaud the governor for addressing this, it tragically took a horrific violent crime to take action,” Westerfield said in a statement. “This has been a known issue willfully ignored by multiple administrations.”
At the detention center in Adair County, several young people and staff were wounded in the disturbance, which 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.
A state police investigation is continuing, but the governor said he expects it to result in “significant charges.” A staff member was hospitalized with significant injuries, Beshear said.
“We can’t allow that to happen because, first, these are our folks and they’re there trying to do good work," he said. "And second, we can’t allow it to happen because we won’t be able to recruit additional people to work these facilities unless they are safe.”
Under Kentucky law, any youth between the ages of 11 and 18 may be ordered by a judge to be held at a state juvenile detention center.
Kentucky has been using an outdated model that's now dealing with more violent youths, Beshear said in announcing the initial phase of changes.
“The charges that those juveniles are in for are more violent than we’ve ever seen,” he said.
Juveniles housed at the detention centers receive education, counseling, recreational opportunities, meals, snacks and health care. But the outbreak of violence, Beshear said, causes "major disruptions in the system, where we can’t provide services to someone else who is not causing that disruption because it’s not safe in the facility at that time and you have to restore order before we can.”