The Jefferson County Youth Detention Center in downtown Louisville, shuttered at the start of 2020, is getting a second life as a safe space for kids who’ve been arrested to cool off and access mental health, housing and other community services. 

After Louisville Metro cut all local funding for the detention center in its 2019 budget, about 40 kids were sent to state-run facilities scattered across Kentucky. The closure also left gaps in the county’s juvenile justice system. Officers who detained a kid accused of a crime or a status offense, such as habitually skipping school, no longer had anywhere to take them. 

The process of getting a kid screened by a court-designated worker and having a judge decide what to do with them can take five or six hours.

Metro Council President David James, a Democrat and former Louisville police detective, said officers were having to wait with kids that entire time, either sitting them in the back of their patrol vehicle or taking them to a facility without the proper staffing in far east Jefferson County.

“That meant that that officer was going to be off the street, unable to respond to runs and help citizens, while they were sitting there babysitting,” he said.

With a police department that is around 250 officers short, James said made for a costly tradeoff.

In order to address some of the gaps left by the shuttered detention facility, part of the old concrete building has been transformed into the Youth Transitional Center. 

Renovations to the building, located at South 8th and West Jefferson Streets, started late last year after Metro Council set aside $3 million in federal COVID-19 relief for the project. The funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is supposed to keep the transitional center running for three years.

A safe space for kids needing help

On a recent tour of the new Youth Transitional Center, Director Endora Davis pointed out all the ways workers have tried to make the facility seem less like a jail. 

“A juvenile is going to come into the waiting room and they can sit here and look at the TV,” she said. “We have little cards, stress balls, literature that we’ve put out for juveniles to just be able to read or anything.”

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Some areas of the old Youth Detention Center, like the basketball court and gym, remain closed.

Davis, who was previously the assistant director of the detention facility, said the two sworn officers, the full-time nurse, and other staff are trained in how to deal with young people. They talk with them not about their charges, but about their lives, she said.

Abstract paintings made by kids previously incarcerated at the detention center cover up some of the white cinderblock walls.

“I like them,” Davis said. “We just wanted to repurpose this space and make it a little more juvenile-friendly.”

Police who detain kids in Louisville, for whatever reason, can now bring them to the Youth Transitional Center, where they have access to bathrooms, snacks and a room for quiet reflection.

Officials said having this space solves two major problems left by the closing of the Youth Detention Center. First, it gives officers a way to quickly hand over custody. Davis said getting a child checked in and logging their property takes about 10 minutes. Then an officer can be back on the streets, doing their job.

Roberto Roldan | wfpl.org

Endora Davis stands in front of the area where kids wait for a court-designated worker to arrive.

The Youth Transitional Center also allows officials to intervene in a kid’s life before they end up in a situation where they’re facing detention. 

District 21 Council Member Nicole George, a Democrat and certified social worker, was one of the main supporters of getting the transitional center off the ground. George said that opportunity was more rare over the last few years.

“What we had created in doing away with [the Youth Detention Center] was a system where, if a young person had some risk behaviors but it didn’t elevate to where an officer thought they’d screen enough for detention, they just released them,” she said.

In those instances, George said, kids at risk of getting in trouble again weren’t receiving the resources they needed to go down a different path. 

Kentucky’s unique juvenile justice system

In Kentucky, kids accused of a crime or truancy have to be evaluated by a court-designated worker. Those workers screen kids for past traumatic experiences and behavioral issues that would indicate they’re likely to have more problems in the future. 

Sometimes a court-designated worker will recommend to a judge that a child go to a detention facility while they await trial. In the vast majority of cases, however, kids are released back to their families and participate in some form of diversion.

Rachel Bingham, director of statewide programs for the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts, said diversion usually requires a child to access community resources or programming and attend follow-up meetings.

“We’re always looking at whether or not our young people need to have an assessment for any type of behavioral or mental health needs, and ways that we can build conflict management skills and life skills,” she said.

Roberto Roldan | wfpl.org

There are pamphlets and posters for mental health, job placement and other community resources in the waiting room for families.

Rarely are kids placed in detention or put on home incarceration, a product of Kentucky’s “unique” juvenile justice system, Bingham said. A sweeping reform bill passed by the General Assembly in 2014 mandates that kids accused of committing a crime be placed in the “least restrictive environment” necessary for their treatment and public safety.

Bingham said court-designated workers often act as case managers, trying to get kids and their parents to take advantage of free community resources, such as mental health counseling, life skills courses, job placement and housing assistance.

The goal is to help them end up on a better path by addressing the root causes of the bad behavior.

“If kids enter a detention center, then their chances of being involved not only with not only the juvenile justice system but the criminal justice system increase exponentially,” Bingham said. “So we want to keep them out of detention, we want to keep them out of jail.”

The new Transitional Youth Center has a dedicated room for court-designated workers to complete their evaluations, work out diversion plans and have the conversations that help them understand the kind of resources a kid might need.

In the waiting areas for kids and families there are pamphlets for nonprofits that provide job training, leadership classes and housing assistance. One is The Spot, which has locations in west Louisville and downtown.

Davis, who heads the transitional center, said she’s also working on more partnerships to offer a wider range of referrals.

“We just want to be able to connect some children, even though we aren’t mandating it from the court,” she said. “We want to be that place that can bridge a gap that any juvenile may be needing.”

Davis said the goal is for the transitional center to be more than a safe place for kids to wait. She wants it to be a hub for resources to address why they ended up there in the first place.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.