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Scrutiny of Kentucky's embattled juvenile justice system increases

Department of Juvenile Justice

Lawmakers appear increasingly at odds with the governor over how to fix the state’s troubled juvenile justice system. A number of Kentucky legislators are calling for new leadership and an audit.

Thursday was a case of dueling press conferences, as members of a task force used a Capitol appearance to press for changes that go beyond the long list of reforms being implemented by the Beshear administration.

Members of the task force applauded some moves by the governor, but took aim at what they described a toxic culture that still exists within the struggling system, which has seen recent riots, staffing shortages, and a changing population of juveniles.

"DJJ worked great when it was first established and the purpose it was established for. It's not the same group of kids that are in these facilities now. These are more hardcore, more violent overall, and we have to adjust to that."
Sen. Danny Carrol (R-KY)

It’s a form of the argument Gov. Andy Beshear himself has repeated, while noting that part of the problem is due to the makeup of the populations and not a statement about the "overall youth in Kentucky or America."

But addressing the question of a leadership change during his Thursday press briefing, the Democrat stood by his Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner, Vicki Reed.

"What I have seen of our current commissioner is she wants to make these changes. She wants to make these facilities safe, and we're going to ensure that the resources and opportunities are there," the governor said.

DJJ continues to face major challenges, including a federal lawsuit alleging widespread problems in the system.

In addition to the changes already underway – including separating juveniles by the severity of their alleged crimes and bumping up pay for starting staff – the governor announced a couple new steps this week. Kentucky State Police will now be placed in the state’s three high-security facilities and the governor’s team is making public millions in new funding requests it will be asking the legislature to provide.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.