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Our juvenile justice system is a disgrace. It must be reformed

By: Keith Kappes
Columnist
Carter County Times

As a result of investigative articles by John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader, everyone in Kentucky should be outraged about what is happening to those incarcerated in our state’s juvenile justice system.

The newspaper gave graphic details of 116 documented cases of excessive force used by corrections officers against young people in custody in the state’s 24 residential facilities. Only a few of the offenders were punished and most kept their jobs.

Cheves wrote that former officers told him of an unspoken rule that resulted in excessive force incidents being downplayed in written reports. That practice alone allowed some to hide behind the state merit system.

We shouldn’t be surprised about the DJJ which has become a quagmire of scandals and management turnover, including five commissioners in the last five years. 

What does this disgraceful situation say about our state? We claim to love and cherish our children but somehow, we are allowing this pervasive brutality to go unchecked.

The newspaper reported incidents of racial slurs and threats of violence, inappropriate sexual conduct by officers, lack of supervision which allowed drugs to be smuggled into facilities and youth-on-youth sexual assaults. 

Ironically, the DJJ’s very existence came out of a lawsuit settlement with the U. S. Department of Justice in 1996 which, in turn, resulted from civil rights violations involving juveniles in Kentucky.

Recommendations for reform today include the DJJ providing monthly reports to judges, attorneys, and parents of children now in the system. Also, employees who mistreat youth would be terminated immediately.

Most of those incarcerated are troubled youth, often with histories of abuse, who could become troubled adults in the criminal justice system. We must develop better rehabilitation methods that go beyond keeping them under lock and key and constantly at risk of being abused by those paid to protect them.

Now that we know how abuse, trauma, and neglect in childhood affect people for the rest of their lives, we must not let that trauma come at the hands of those sworn to protect and help them.

Keith Kappes can be reached at keithkappes@gmail.com

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