- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - More than four months after a black teenager’s death in state custody, activists delivered stacks of petitions to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s office Thursday calling for more action, saying the tragedy underscores flaws in the juvenile justice system.

Two dozen activists gathered at the state Capitol to demand more answers and accountability for the death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen. They said the state-run juvenile detention facility where she died should close and its top official and all other staff involved should be fired.

“No real accountability or reform has been made since Gynnya’s death,” activist Enchanta Jackson said. “Gov. Bevin has done nothing to ensure justice for Gynnya and he has done nothing to ensure the safety of other children in the detention centers.”

Activists representing several groups delivered boxes of petitions they said carry nearly 194,000 signatures to Bevin’s office. They piled the petitions on a desk and soon left.

The state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet responded that investigations are continuing and said a juvenile justice overhaul meant to keep more youths out of detention centers is working.

The cabinet said it “remains committed to transparency and will continue taking proactive steps to ensure the safety of all youths in juvenile facilities.”

It said the state’s Juvenile Justice Department is reviewing personnel, policies and procedures. The cabinet said it also plans to bring in an outside review group.

“We believe these efforts will provide the most rapid and effective approach to addressing concerns at the facility,” its statement said.

State Justice Secretary John Tilley has said the teenager died in her sleep from a heart condition, and a martial arts hold used to restrain her was not a contributing factor.

The Shelby County youth died at Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Facility at Elizabethtown in January. She arrived there after allegedly having a domestic dispute.

A state police review uncovered no evidence of foul play. Medical examiners found no evidence of lethal blunt force injury and attributed the death to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia, Tilley said in March.

Several activists on Thursday questioned why McMillen was taken to the detention facility, saying other options were available.

“Young black girls have issues and have things that go on in their lives that we’re not addressing,” Tamika Dozier said. “And incarcerating them does not rehabilitate them.”

Amanda Mullins Bear, with the Children’s Law Center, said the case highlights the need to “abandon the reliance of incarceration as a fix.”

“Gynnya’s death should not be in vain,” she said. “It should serve as a reminder that much work still needs to be done to reform Kentucky’s justice system.”

Two years ago, Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation - Senate Bill 200 - to revamp the juvenile justice system with the goal of steering more young offenders into community-based treatment as an alternative to locking them up in detention centers.

Diversions are up since the law took effect, meaning more youths are being placed in community-based programs rather than in detention facilities, the cabinet said.

During the first half of the current fiscal year, the number of youths sent to state-run detention facilities across Kentucky was down 45 percent from the same period a year ago, it said.

“There is plenty evidence out there that SB 200 is keeping kids out of detention. The law is working,” said Jessie Halladay, a Justice Cabinet spokeswoman.

But Tilley said in March that a review by the cabinet’s internal investigations branch uncovered a pattern of employee misconduct at the facility where McMillen died. Problems included failure to complete regular bed checks and falsification of information logs.

Three employees at the detention center were fired, two were suspended and one resigned, the cabinet said. Two employees were indicted on misdemeanor second-degree official misconduct charges for their alleged failure to perform bed checks on McMillen.

In February, the state’s juvenile justice commissioner was relieved of his duties amid the investigation into the teenager’s death.

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