Though Sedgwick County must make some difficult budget choices, closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch could be pound-foolish. And it would be wrong to abandon young people who need help.
County budget staff (not corrections staff) has proposed closing the ranch as a way to narrow the county’s $9.5 million budget deficit. It estimates that shuttering the facility at Lake Afton could save between $1 million and $2 million annually.
But the closure might not save that much money, because the juveniles would still need help. If they are sent to facilities outside the county – and openings are few – that would increase transportation costs. And if the county places more of the kids in its juvenile detention facility, it would shoulder more of the cost, including medical care. At the ranch, the cost is shared with the state and federal governments (though the state reimbursement rate is too low, which is a big part of the problem).
If the county doesn’t intervene with these kids, many of them eventually could end up in the county jail, which would cost the county even more money and jeopardize public safety. That’s counter to the excellent work the county has done the past couple of years investing in diversion programs aimed at reducing the jail population.
The Boys Ranch is so effective that Delores Craig-Moreland, a Wichita State University criminal justice professor, estimated that it results in 390 fewer criminals to house in the jail over a 10-year period.
The ranch “is in a class all its own throughout the state of Kansas,” she said.
Another big challenge facing the 51-year-old Boys Ranch is that it needs capital improvements. County Manager William Buchanan said the facility needs about $2.5 million in repairs or improvements now.
But Mark Masterson, director of the county’s Department of Corrections, thinks the improvements could be phased in. The county also should aggressively pursue private donations to help pay for these improvements – including from judges and others in the legal community who understand the importance of the ranch.
As an alternative to closing the ranch, Masterson has proposed reducing some staff – though state regulations limit the staff-to-client ratio. The county also might pursue privatization to reduce labor costs.
It also should be noted that the county has another option for addressing its budget challenge besides closing the ranch: It can raise property taxes slightly.
That option may send some county commissioners into a tizzy. But what better use of local tax dollars than a proven program that rescues kids and prevents crime?
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee