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With a little more than three months to go before Louisville stops operating the youth detention center it runs downtown, officials have reached a tentative deal to turn incarcerated youth over to the state.

The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice will take over Louisville’s youth detention services on Jan. 1, 2020, as city-allocated funding for the center runs out. The young people currently detained in Louisville will be transferred to out-of-county, state-run facilities, said Denny Butler, Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice Commissioner.

There are currently 42 youth detained in Louisville. The timeline for their transfer is not yet set.

Butler, Louisville Deputy Mayor Ellen Hesen and other officials met with members of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee members Thursday to announce the plan and ask for feedback and cooperation.

At that meeting, Butler also announced that DJJ would set up a 10-bed facility at the state’s Audubon campus in Lyndon that would hold newly-arrested youth temporarily in Jefferson County until they are arraigned. DJJ will operate the 10-bed facility alongside an existing Day Treatment Center for males, which will be separate and not affected.

If a judge decides the youth will continue to be held, he or she would be transferred to an out-of-county facility.

Butler said he did not know what the new setup would cost. Louisville will put financial resources toward setting up and operating the new facility at the Audubon campus. Hesen said she did not yet know how much the city would pay.

Currently, DJJ pays Louisville a per diem for operating the youth detention center. Hesen said running that center costs about $9.7 million a year, with the state subsidy bringing in about $1.6 million a year.

Butler said DJJ hopes to set up a Youth Development Center — where youths are held after judges decide they should serve time — at the Audubon campus within a matter of months. That could allow about 60 Jefferson County youth who are committed at facilities throughout the state to come back, he said.

“Our goal is to keep the kids out of the system and with their families,” Butler said. “And I think we can have a positive impact in that and improve the system.”

Addressing A Different Problem

But a local Youth Development Center would not solve the issue created by the Louisville facility’s closure because Youth Detention Services holds youth whose cases are open and who are awaiting trial. They will be probably be sent to detention centers in Campbell or Warren County, Butler said.

The closest state-run detention center is in Lexington, but it does not have the capacity to take in more kids.

The juvenile justice system uses its own terms, but Louisville’s Youth Detention Services is akin to jail — its occupants are awaiting resolution of their cases. Youth Development Centers are equivalent to prison in that youth there have been committed, or sentenced, to serve time there by a judge when the case was resolved.

Distance from family is a concern critics of the plan to close Youth Detention Services brought up earlier this year, when the facility was on the chopping block amid larger budget cuts.

In June, the Louisville Metro Council approved a budget that included turning over control of Youth Detention Services in anticipation of saving $1.3 million this fiscal year. Local officials cut more than $25 million from the budget versus what would have been needed to maintain last year’s service and staffing levels as costs for employee health insurance and pensions increased.

At that time, state officials said they did not have the resources to take over Louisville’s detention center and might instead disperse youth across the state. Some officials and others were concerned that shipping kids outside the county would burden their families and make it harder for them to visit.

Hesen described the transfer as a work in progress. The tentative plan includes the state overseeing alternatives including home incarceration, splitting transportation for pre- and post-adjudicated youth between Louisville Metro and the Sheriff, and setting up a free video conferencing system for communication with family and attorneys.

Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee member Rev. Roosevelt Lightsy, Jr., of the Community Missionary Baptist Church, said the video conferencing tool could alleviate family separation somewhat. And he said a lack of this kind of collaboration between governments and agencies typically impedes processing juveniles.

But he pointed out that many questions remain, including where current Youth Detention Services employees will land.

“I will say to the community: take heart, be encouraged,” he said. “Yet remain watchful, and whatever you can do to assist, to make yourselves available through volunteering or sharing any programs that you may have in your local churches or your local community, let them be known. Share them so that we can factor those into the equation of what possible treatment services we can provide.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Youth Advocates, praised the announcement as “an imaginative and kid-centric approach to youth justice.”

“Today’s move by the Justice Cabinet means that we are going to begin to look at the long-term potential of these young people rather than simply figuring out a way to incarcerate,” he wrote in a statement.

Yet Brooks also pointed out that racial disparities exist in juvenile detention rates and called for cultural competency in all facilities.

Louisville’s Youth Detention Services booked 1,359 youth in 2018, the majority of whom were black males, according to data released online by the city.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.