Mayor Greg Fischer recently announced that the Jefferson County Youth Detention Center (JCYC) will close on January 1, 2020. Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) will absorb the young people detained in JCYC or involved in the court system. 

The closure of JCYC presents an opportunity for Jefferson County to reform its juvenile justice system. However, DJJ and Jefferson County established a Tentative Agreement this week that imperils the future of Louisville’s youth. Under the agreement, Louisville will ship detained youth to detention centers throughout the state. This will separate detained youth from their families, threaten their constitutional right to due process, further disrupt their educations, and create a logistical nightmare for court officials.

First, the agreement will send Louisville’s detained youth to three detention centers throughout the state. The closest of these is 106 miles away; the farthest is 189 miles away. Incarceration tears at young people’s connections to their families and communities. Families will be forced to travel up to six hours and 378 miles round-trip. Many will likely be unable to secure an entire day away from work or to afford transportation costs. This undue burden will exacerbate already strained relationships and further erode any ties detained youth have to their extended community. 

The distance of these facilities also raises serious constitutional concerns with children being placed so far from their attorneys. The Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office is already stretched thin. Placing incarcerated youth 100+ miles from local attorneys and public defenders will make communication incredibly difficult and cumbersome. 

Second, this agreement threatens detained young people’s constitutional right to due process. The agreement considers video-conferencing as an alternative to in-person contact during court proceedings to minimize inconvenience from travel. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause guarantees an accused individual an all-encompassing right to be present—a right which should not be trumped in the name of administrative convenience. Video-conferencing also impairs the quality of the youth’s representation by impeding the attorney’s access to confidential information and adding to the likelihood that the youth will be less engaged, particularly during court hearings.

Additionally, detention seriously disrupts a young person’s education. When a child is placed in another county, they must be unenrolled from their home school and enrolled in the county in which they are detained. Under the Tentative Agreement, a student could go from JCPS to Adair County, and then to Boyd County. That would amount to three different school enrollments in just one semester. 

There is also a significant risk that children requiring special education will not receive the appropriate services. Teachers and schools develop Individual Learning Programs (IEPs) for children requiring special education. Effective IEPs require stable relationships between students and their teachers. It is also unlikely that IEPs would be fully and lawfully implemented at times when students are spending an entire day, or multiple days, traveling back and forth to court. 

Third, this agreement ignores sensitive cultural considerations. On any given day, 90-95% of Louisville’s detained youth are African American. Outsourcing Louisville’s youth detention to rural areas will place youth of color in facilities without sizeable populations of color and under the care of staff who may not be culturally competent. Detained youth must have access to services from professionals who understand their communities and the trauma these young people carry with them. 

Finally, closing JCYC will create a logistical nightmare for court officials and law enforcement, as these youth must be transported from the county where they are held to the county where they face charges. Youth must be transported separately if they are co-defendants or different genders, requiring multiple vehicles and drivers for what could be only a few individuals. Moreover, detention hearings may require multiple appearances in court. This may mean that youth are forced to travel up to six hours round trip for every court appearance, which would be especially problematic for youth facing multi-day and multi-week trials.

In a letter sent this week to Mayor Greg Fischer and Commissioner Denver Butler at DJJ, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Institute for Compassion in Justice, and the Children’s Law Center proposed a community-based solution. JCYC could be used as both a youth development center and detention center, containing all services, offices, courts, and residential housing services on one single campus. More states and counties are adopting this holistic approach that would ensure our justice system employs all current and proposed community alternatives and reform programs. Concerned legal advocates also proposed creating a task force that includes youth, families, agency staff, legislators, judges, community groups, and other stakeholders which would identify and generate long-term solutions.

It is time to turn away from a system dependent on filling beds in detention centers, and toward one that helps Louisville’s detained youth get back on track.