LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Public Safety Committee questioned leaders from the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center on Wednesday about recent safety concerns revealed in an external audit.
WDRB uncovered the problems and reported the improvements during an in-depth series of stories earlier this month. Public Safety Committee members wanted to discuss the audit’s findings and better understand how the jail operates and the challenges it faces.
“I think that they are taking some steps in the right direction, but there is certainly still room for growth,” committee chair Jessica Green said.
The jail’s director, Dr. Ursula Mullins, said there are around 85 youth inmates in the jail currently. The jail can hold up to 96 inmates from the ages of 12 to 17. The average length of stay is 24 days, but many children are staying for months or even years.
“Many of them are there for a long time, and we cannot just house them like animals,” Green said.
The most common crime a resident is charged with is robbery or assault, and Mullins said the recidivism rate is around 48 percent.
Mullins reviewed the audit findings before answering council members’ questions. The audit was voluntary and requested by the jail in order to point out problems and provide solutions. The city and state split the cost of the audit, which points out serious faults in education, mental health, confinement and other safety and employee concerns.
“There were several things highlighted in the audit as areas where we could have improvement,” Mullins said.
She listed changes the jail has already made, including hiring a new full-time assistant principal, adding more therapy for the kids, and more screening and training for employees. The director’s full list presented to the committee is below.
One of the areas the director said the jail is still working to make changes is with the use of confinement.
“Confinement is used in the incident when youth in our center have been aggressive to each other or to our staff,” Mullins said about the current policy.
However, the audit also reports confinement is inconsistently used as punishment or as a solution for mental health concerns. Mullins said jail leaders have been trying over the years to reduce the amount of confinement. And now they plan to make major changes.
“The behavior management system that we have is based on rewards, but you also get confinement time for infractions," Mullins said. "We literally have to undo that"
Mullins said the jail is working to create a new system based on incentives for good behavior instead of sending kids to confinement for bad behavior. She did not provide any examples of how that would work, but she did say it would take at least six months to create the new plan and figure out how to retrain employees.
Mullins said most of the changes the jail has already made as a result of the audit will fit within its budget, which was slashed by nearly $600,000 from the year before. However, she said some other hopeful changes, like a new food service and 24-hour nurse, will need more funding.
“We would need an additional $60,000 to cover a different menu,” Mullins said. “The medical contract, I imagine, would be much more than that.”
Green said Metro Council will need to take everything into consideration as it looks for more funding to make the necessary improvements.
“YDS, a lot of people don’t understand it,” Green said. “But they play a critical role in our community. For some of these juveniles, this may be the last stop before they go right or left.”
Green emphasized the need to make sure the juvenile jail is rehabilitative.
“We’ve got to do more than just warehouse these kids,” Green said. “Because these kids, juvenile offenders, they have the potential to either be adult offenders or adult contributing members of society.”
The jail’s leaders have said on multiple occasions that the jail was never designed to be rehabilitative but to house children until a judge decides their fate. However, as the jail’s population changes, leaders see the need to provide more rehabilitative options for the inmates and support for their families.
“Those kids who are with us,” Mullins said. “As we see more and more kids who are charged with more violent crimes and being charged as adults, they’re staying longer.”
Another major finding in the audit was training, turnover and safety concerns for employees. The juvenile jail currently has 12 vacancies, which it hopes to have filled by mid-March. As the jail fills positions, it fights a revolving door of more employees leaving. The most recent turnover rate for YDS is 38 percent.
Mullins told committee members they're working to provide more support to employees in hopes of seeing a difference in the turnover rate.
"Like having a wellness committee and things for our staff, because it's a stressful job," Mullins said. "The nature of the job is very difficult. And we want to do what we can to counteract that."
The juvenile jail has requested a follow-up audit in order to compare how they’ve improved. They would need to wait a full year before asking the auditors to come back through. That could be some time in the summer or fall.
Internal Draft Only
One topic not covered in the audit but brought up during the committee meeting was an email that was part of the WDRB investigation. WDRB asked jail leaders in January about an email instructing employees to label email correspondences as “internal draft” in order to avoid open records requests.
Committee Vice Chair James Peden: “That giant email instructing you to put ‘draft’ on everything, please tell me you’re not doing that. Because that just screams illegalities."
Mullins: “So draft is usually used if we’re sharing personal or confidential juvenile information. That is something we do so we can flag. It’s not uncommon to flag if there’s personal confidential information.”
Peden: “But I’m pretty sure the email that was presented on television says put draft on everything so it’s not subject to open records request. For a city who prides itself on we’re transparent, that doesn’t say that."
Mullins: “I understand."
Mullins said the email was “brought to my attention from the media, to be honest.” She told committee members that employees have since been instructed on what is appropriate to flag and what is not. She said there is not a current policy on it but added that they could look into other city groups’ policies to craft one of their own.
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