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Advocates plead for Judge Riddel Boys Ranch to stay open

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, June 15, 2012, at 9:05 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, August 16, 2012, at 6:05 a.m.

A parade of advocates – including some former juvenile offenders who say they have turned their lives around – pleaded with state legislators and some Sedgwick County commissioners on Friday to keep the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch open.

The legislative hearing was called with an eye toward saving the boys ranch, which is among cuts the commission will consider during its budgeting process in the next two months.

The meeting at the Sedgwick County Human Services Building drew 13 legislators – eight Republicans and five Democrats – and three county commissioners.

Much of the day’s testimony came from people who had had direct contact with the ranch, including teachers and relatives of youths confined there. But the testimony that appeared to carry the most weight with lawmakers came from some young men who had been incarcerated at the boys ranch as juveniles and are now living productive lives.

Nate Davis said he spent about six months in the program after being convicted of car burglary and car theft when he was 13.

Now 28, he said he has completed two years of college and is program coordinator for Youth for Christ’s City Life Work program. The program provides former youth offenders with ongoing support and jobs in three businesses – yard work, fence repair and a cafe.

“Most of them have never had a job before,” Davis said.

While he works with youths from a number of programs, Riddel alumni “are already kind of sculpted from their training at the boys ranch and end up being our best workers,” he said.

Davis said his father had spent more than half his adult life in prison, and he was on the same path until his experience with the boys ranch got him to change his behavior.

“I’ve never been to prison,” he said. “The only times I’ve seen the inside of a prison is going in trying to help other guys come out.”

Davis brought along two other boys ranch alumni who now work with the Christian program.

Sam Lamping, 18, said he learned patience and the value of work at the ranch, and he’s scheduled to enter Wichita State University in the fall.

“A couple years earlier, I would have never even thought about it,” Lamping said.

“Awesome,” replied Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, who led the hearing in his role as chairman of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation.

‘Nothing’s in concrete’

Conspicuously absent were members of the county’s juvenile justice staff, who were forbidden by county management from speaking at the meeting.

County Manager William Buchanan said the county had tried to work with state officials in Topeka on additional funding for the ranch since February and gotten nowhere. He said the hearing “is not our meeting” and commissioners will discuss the issue at their staff meeting Tuesday.

DeGraaf said he was “disappointed that people were discouraged from speaking,” because people who work directly with programs often have good ideas for making improvements.

DeGraaf acknowledged that whether to close the boys ranch is a county decision, but said the purpose of the legislative hearing was to determine “what we as legislators can do to help the County Commission as they wrestle with this issue.”

Three county commissioners – Karl Peterjohn, Richard Ranzau and Tim Norton – did address the legislative panel. As elected officials, they weren’t under the staff ban on speaking.

Norton told lawmakers he’s gratified that so many people think the ranch is doing a good job. He assured the lawmakers that “nothing’s in concrete” as far as closing the facility.

But he also chided the lawmakers for diverting $12 million in property tax relief aid that was supposed to go to the county but that the Legislature kept to backfill its own budget.

If the county had gotten that money, “Would we even be having a discussion about” the ranch? “Heck no,” Norton said.

Rep. Geraldine Flaharty, D-Wichita, said she found it ironic that the state expects the county to run the boys ranch on $126 per child per day.

“We get $123 per diem during the legislative session,” Flaharty said. “And they (the county) are supposed to provide counseling and therapy and all these other services for $126 a day.”

It costs the county $201 a day to provide 24/7 housing and services to as many as 49 youth offenders at the ranch. The state pays $126 of that; the county pays the rest.

The county estimates that closing the facility would eliminate the equivalent of 54 full-time jobs and save $1.8 million a year. It also would mean $2.6 million in savings on repairs and improvements needed at the ranch.

The county is facing a $9.3 million budget shortfall. The new budget will be voted on Aug. 15.

‘Courting disaster’

Mel and Barbara Davis – no relation to Nate Davis – testified that time at the ranch has had a huge effect on their 16-year-old grandson, who they said got in trouble mostly because of behavioral issues related to epilepsy and attention deficit disorder.

In three months at the ranch, his reading has come up two grade levels, and when he leaves, “He’ll be able to go to high school right at his grade level,” Barbara Davis said.

Mel Davis said it would be a big loss to close a program that is effective in reducing crime and helping troubled youth succeed.

“As long as we continue to look at this as an expense instead of an investment, we’re courting disaster,” he said.

Kay Clark, who taught English at the ranch for 10 years, said stories like the ones the Davises and Lamping told are common.

“I’ve seen parents in tears because their child is being successful,” she said. “I remember one mother said, ‘This is the best he’s done since he was in the fourth grade.’ They’re grateful.”

The County Commission will discuss the ranch at a staff meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 525 N. Main in Wichita.

The meeting will be open but commissioners will not take public testimony, Norton said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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