Twice a week, Jamekia Belle battles traffic jams to get downtown to see her 17-year-old son at Louisville Metro Youth Detention Services.
Belle’s son has been locked up since September — she’d rather not talk about the charge — and the visits are important to them both. She often has to switch shifts with coworkers to be there, and the trip takes about half an hour from her home in Shively. But she needs to be there as often as the facility will let her in.
“I don’t think that he would be able to be as strong without me being there,” Belle said. “I ask him to pray and keep God in his heart at all times, but without me there, what could happen? He could get depressed. He could start acting out.”
Lately, Belle has a new worry: that the city’s financial woes will make it harder for her to see her son.
Louisville leaders are considering closing down the youth detention center in a scramble to find $35 million in cost savings before the new fiscal year begins in July. Mayor Greg Fischer’s office has projected that, by 2023, Louisville will face a $65 million budget shortfall driven in part by rising employee health care and pension costs. The Metro Council shot down a tax hike to make up the difference.
The city’s proposal to return operation of youth detention services to the state in December would shave $2.4 million from the budget annually, according to budget documents, and result in cutting 118 jobs.
It’s still unclear whether the state would operate a facility in Louisville or send Louisville youth to other regional detention centers under the proposed cut.
Endora Davis, assistant director of Youth Detention Services, said the facility’s staff has no solid answers.
“The impact of children being detained outside the county would be a great burden on the parents,” Davis said.
Backup Plan Unclear
Officials at the Department of Juvenile Justice refused a request for an interview. In an emailed statement, DJJ spokesperson Kelci Webb said the department needs more information about Louisville’s situation to assess any operational changes.
“However, we empathize with Louisville’s fiscal concerns,” Webb said. “We will make every effort to assist during this time and help minimize any negative consequences for youth and families.”
The population at the youth center fluctuates but Davis said they’re housing 40 to 50 youth at a time right now. DJJ has open beds, Webb said, but the juvenile facilities don’t have enough staff to accept more youth.
Fischer told WDRB earlier this month that the state could reopen a facility in eastern Jefferson County to house detained youth; Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for Fischer’s office, told KyCIR via email that they are in discussions with the state, and it’s “too early to comment.”
Webb declined to address whether DJJ is considering running a facility in Louisville.
If there were no juvenile facility in Jefferson County, Louisville youth awaiting closure of their cases would have to be sent to other parts of the state. The current closest facility is in Fayette County, about 70 miles away. But that facility, according to DJJ, is too full to take in any of Louisville’s youth.
The remaining facilities are all several hours away by car: Breathitt and Boyd counties to the east, Campbell County to the north and Warren and McCracken counties to the south and west.
Belle’s half-hour drive to see her son could become an overnight trip to a detention center far from his family and his lawyer. She said that would be a burden.
“I would honestly try to take off work, maybe get a hotel, to be there to see him,” Belle said. “But doing that is taking away from my bill money, all my extra fun money. I would have to make a lot of arrangements.”
Davis said many family members come downtown for visitation on the city bus.
“The majority of the parents that we have here, they have complications just getting to downtown Louisville,” Davis said.
Proposal Comes As DJJ Is Downsizing
Louisville has always run its own juvenile jail, and it kept doing so even when the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice was created. DJJ provides some funding to Louisville Metro through a contract for the city to run the facility, which opened in 1981 as the Jefferson County Youth Center.
If the arrangement were reversed and DJJ were detaining Louisville’s kids, Louisville would have to pay DJJ $94 per day, per youth.
The sheriff’s office would likely be required to transport them back to Jefferson County for court, Davis said. Jefferson County Juvenile Court runs five days a week. In Louisville, the youth take classes through the Jefferson County Public Schools, but Davis expects they’d be transferred to other school districts while detained and potentially lose credits.
The youth detained in Louisville are predominately, and disproportionately, black: though black youth are less than 27 percent of Louisville’s population, they represented more than 75 percent of the youth bookings into secure detention in 2017, a KyCIR analysis showed.
The overall number of youth detained has dropped significantly in recent years in Louisville and statewide. New laws enacted in 2015 mean fewer youth are sent to lockup for minor offenses.
That reduction allowed the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees DJJ, to close facilities and reduce staff. It has closed three juvenile facilities in recent years, including the regional juvenile detention center that was closest to Louisville: Lincoln Village in Hardin County, where 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died in 2016.