Kentucky governor announces departure of commissioner running troubled juvenile justice agency

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday announced the pending departure of the state’s juvenile justice commissioner but said a series of policy actions within the past year had created a “good road map” for the troubled agency.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Vicki Reed submitted her resignation effective at the start of next year, the governor said at a news conference. Reed became a lightning rod for criticism as the state-operated system struggled to quell violent outbursts at some juvenile detention centers. The governor on Thursday called for a coordinated effort with state lawmakers to continue dealing with the agency’s issues.

Fresh off his reelection victory last week, the Democratic governor offered an upbeat message about the Bluegrass State’s future for additional economic gains. He began his press conference, as he typically does, by announcing the latest economic development projects landed by the state.

“This is the brightest, most optimistic opportunity that I’ve certainly seen in my lifetime for where we can go as a state, lifting up all of our people and moving us all, not right or left, but forward together,” the governor said.

Beshear also announced the departures of several administration officials as he prepares for his second four-year term. Some reshuffling is typical as any governor pivots from the first term to a second one and as some officials seek new opportunities.

In another notable departure, Jeremy Slinker is stepping down as director of Kentucky’s emergency management agency to take a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor announced. He praised Slinker as a “nonstop worker,” saying he “couldn’t have had a better partner” in dealing with the aftermath of devastating tornadoes that hit parts of western Kentucky in late 2021, followed by massive flooding that inundated sections of eastern Kentucky in 2022.

But the biggest shakeup was the announcement that Reed will leave the Department of Juvenile Justice. The agency has undergone a number of leadership changes in the past several years, and Reed was hired by Beshear as commissioner in 2021. The state has already started the search for her successor.

“We appreciate all of her efforts in pushing through preexisting challenges and helping us make some of the most significant changes since the creation of DJJ,” Beshear said. “I know it hasn’t been easy for Vicki Reed to push through. But every day she’s shown up and tried to do her best and I’m grateful for that.”

Kentucky’s juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of youths accused of violent offenses. The result was a string of assaults, riots and escapes.

A riot broke out last year at a detention center, causing injuries to some young people and staff. Order was restored after state police and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. In another incident, some juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at another center.

Beshear responded with 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, and “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — was provided for the first time so detention center workers could defend themselves and others if attacked. The juvenile justice agency hired a director of security, and visitor screenings were bolstered to prevent drugs or other dangerous items from infiltrating detention centers.

The state’s Republican-dominated legislature passed legislation and pumped additional money into the system to try to overcome the chronic problems. The legislation added stricter rules for youths charged with or convicted of violent crimes. Lawmakers appropriated money to boost salaries for juvenile justice employees, hire more DJJ correctional officers, upgrade security at detention centers and increase diversion and treatment services for detained youths. The appropriations reflected much of the funding requests from Beshear’s administration to retain and recruit workers in the understaffed facilities.

“I think we’ve got a good road map for DJJ,” Beshear said Thursday when asked what’s next for the department. “I believe that if we continue to work the plan in coordination with the General Assembly, that we are already in a better place and we are getting to a better place.”

The agency came under criticism in recent months for, among other things, improperly locking youths in isolation because of understaffing and for misuse of pepper spray by corrections officers, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, which has reported extensively on the issue.

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