Governor Released Adult Prisoners, Advocates Want Juvenile Offenders Out Too

Apr 7, 2020

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Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order last week releasing 186 inmates from state prisons who were vulnerable to the coronavirus. Advocates are calling on the state to take similar steps to protect juveniles who are incarcerated.

The ACLU of Kentucky has sent a letter to Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris, asking her to release as many children as possible, and publicly share the department’s emergency response plan for addressing the pandemic.

“Even in the best of circumstances, infection control presents a significant challenge in these situations because incarcerated youth…often congregate in large groups and live [in] communal settings with shared bathrooms, dining areas, and more,” the letter reads.

ACLU of Kentucky spokeswoman Keturah Herron said the DJJ should release children who are near the end of their sentences, and children who have underlying health conditions that make them susceptible to the virus.

“Whenever you have staff coming in and out of the facility, you don’t know what they’re doing when they’re not at work, or who they’ve been exposed to,” she said.

The ACLU-Ky also asked the DJJ to grant detained young people access to their attorneys, family members and support networks, which has been cut off in many cases with the closure of facilities to the public.

“That can have a really significant impact on your ability to prepare a case, on your ability to keep a kid grounded, and compliant and able to focus,” attorney Rebecca DiLoreto said. DiLoreto is an adjunct law professor at the University of Kentucky, and represents youth facing charges with the Institute for Compassion in Justice.

The DJJ said 92 children were being detained statewide on Friday. The department did not grant WFPL News an interview, but a spokesman sent the following statement:

The Department of Juvenile Justice has established protocols and practices to reduce the risk of exposure to the fullest extent possible. The Department has closed the facilities to the general public and made social distancing a priority among staff and residents. The Department of Juvenile Justice staff are committed to keeping the youth residents we serve healthy and safe.

Judges Find Alternatives To Detention

Meanwhile, some district judges are taking steps to release children whose cases have not been adjudicated, similar to the way some county jails have released many inmates pretrial, as reported by the Kentucky Center For Investigative Reporting.

In Jefferson County, District Court judges Jessica Moore and Julie Kaelin say they’ve been able to reduce the number of the county’s detained youth by more than half, to 11 children who are being held in centers around the state.

“The uncertainty of this epidemic, and knowing that it’s spreading and how quickly it’s spreading, we wanted to make sure we were only holding the children that absolutely needed to be held in detention,” Moore said.

In Christian County, District Court judge John Lindsey Adams said he’s also trying to avoid keeping kids detained.

“The important thing is reading the spirit of Chief Justice [John] Minton’s order,” Adams said, referring to the Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice’s March order closing the state’s courts to most cases.

Adams said he is expecting two of the three children being held Monday in Christian County to be sent home Tuesday with ankle monitors.