House OK’s bill aimed at shoring up juvenile justice system

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House passed a bill Tuesday aimed at shoring up the state’s troubled juvenile justice system by bolstering treatment services and inserting considerably more funding.

Taking up one of the most pressing issues before them, House members voted 79-18 to send the measure to the Senate after an hourlong debate. The vote on House Bill 3 came after a key House committee added millions of dollars in funding to boost staffing at juvenile detention centers and cover costs to take youths to and from juvenile justice facilities.

The action comes as lawmakers look for ways to defuse the risks of violence in the detention centers. The state-run juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of youths accused of violent offenses. The result has been a string of assaults, riots and escapes.

The bill that cleared the House is intended to reopen a youth detention center in Louisville — the state’s largest city — and change policies for juveniles charged with violent offenses. It would require such youths to be held for up to 48 hours, pending a detention hearing.

Another key component of the revamped measure seeks to ensure that troubled youths have access to mental health and addiction treatment, supporters said.

“I just really appreciate the work that’s been done to not only keep our streets safer but to provide the kids who are in the justice system with the care that they need,” said Republican Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser, a co-sponsor of the measure.

The bill calls for about $39 million in additional state funding for the juvenile justice system. Of that amount, $17.1 million would be used to retrofit and reopen the youth detention center in Louisville. The center closed several years ago. Many detained Louisville youths are now sent to a detention facility in rural Adair County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Louisville.

Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron agreed with the efforts to keep those youths closer to home in Louisville. But the bill is too heavily focused on detention, when money should also be devoted to programs geared toward prevention and alternatives to detention, Herron said.

“For us to make sure that families across Jefferson County and across Kentucky are not dealing with this, we have to put money on all of it,” Herron said. “We can’t just do one. And this bill just does one.”

The bill also is aimed at ensuring parental involvement. Under the proposal, parents of a charged juvenile would have to appear before a judge if they’re not cooperating with their child’s diversion program, with the potential for criminal penalties.

It also would remove confidentiality — for three years — in court cases in which juveniles are found guilty of violent felony offenses. If the juvenile doesn’t reoffend within that three-year period, their record would be sealed.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher.

The legislative action comes as the juvenile justice system tries to overcome outbreaks of violence. A riot broke out last year at a detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded. Order was restored after state police and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. More recently, three juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at another center.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear recently made a forceful pitch for the Republican-dominated legislature to increase funding to support changes in the juvenile justice system.

“I ask every branch to do their part to get this right, to not kick the can down the road … and to make sure we have these facilities where they need to be and our juveniles are getting the services that they need,” the governor said at his weekly news conference last week.

Beshear previously responded to the juvenile justice system’s problems by making a series of policy changes to try to quell the violence. He announced that male juveniles would be assigned to facilities based on the severity of their offenses. Three high-security juvenile detention centers were designated to house teenage male offenders charged with serious crimes. The governor ordered the opening of the state’s first female-only juvenile detention center.

In other actions, the governor increased starting pay for detention center staff and said “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — will be provided for the first time so detention center workers can defend themselves and others if attacked.

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