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Sedgwick County pleads with lawmakers to fund Judge Riddel Boys Ranch

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, at 6:48 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, at 6:43 a.m.

Sedgwick County officials told a group of Kansas legislators Thursday that they will close the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton if they don’t get more money from the state budget next year.

County officials said closing the ranch will cost the state more money than keeping it open because of the low rate of recidivism among the youth offenders who go through the ranch’s intense program of retraining to function in society as law-abiding citizens.

“By closing the boys ranch, 50 of these high-risk kids will end up in state juvenile correction facilities at a cost to the state of $3.3 million,” said Chad VonAhnen, the county’s public safety director. “You take those same 50 kids and increase the rate at the boys ranch … that cost is $1.4 million.”

County Commission Chairman Tim Norton was blunt about the fate of the ranch if the state doesn’t come up with additional funding.

“We’re a heartbeat away from closing it,” Norton said. “As it stands right now, we’re only good for a year and after the legislative session we’re ready to pull the trigger and say we’ll do something else. We’ll remand those kids to the state and let the state deal with them.”

Most of the lawmakers appeared supportive of additional funding for the ranch, although there were questions about how to get legislators from other regions to agree to pay higher rates for a program that only serves boys in Sedgwick County.

The county officials made their remarks during their annual luncheon for the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation. About a dozen lawmakers attended the lunch, and five went to Lake Afton to tour the ranch.

There, they saw a variety of programs the ranch offers, including:

• An equestrian program where boys care for horses to build a sense of responsibility and connection to other living things.

• The “Gourmet Guys” cooking program, started by volunteers from the Wichita Junior League, where boys learn to prepare their own meals and practice table manners they will need in society.

• Classroom instruction, where teachers from the Wichita school district provide high school and GED completion programs. This year, the program graduated two boys with high school diplomas and 12 with GEDs. Four have gone on to college and two have entered technical school, officials said.

The problem, according to county officials, is that the state pays $126 a day for each boy at the ranch, while the actual cost of service is $201. The $126 is the same that the state pays for other juvenile facilities more geared to incarceration than rehabilitation.

Over the past five years, 26 percent of the boys who served their time at the ranch have gone on to commit another crime. That’s less than half the rate for boys incarcerated in ordinary juvenile correction facilities, said Mark Masterson, the county’s corrections director.

The ranch only accepts boys who are deemed to be at high or moderate risk of reoffending, he said. County officials challenged the state lawmakers to have their staff research the recidivism rates for other Kansas youth facilities, which don’t report those numbers.

Norton emphasized that commissioners have committed to keeping it open only until the 2013 state legislative session is over and the final budget numbers are settled. If there’s no more money, there’s no way the county will invest money needed to renovate the 50-year-old facility, which some estimates place as high as $14 million.

“I think it would have to be a funding mechanism that would last for a period of time, ’cause I don’t want to fix it and then the next year, you defund it and we’re sitting there holding the bag,” Norton said.

“We found that on some other things where we took commitments and the next thing you know, the state money shrunk up. We don’t think that’s fair.”

Most of the lawmakers seemed to indicate that they understand the county’s argument and are willing to try to help.

Rep.-elect Carolyn Bridges, D-Wichita, said it’s not as much about keeping boys out of juvenile hall, “It’s whether we’re keeping men out of prisons.”

Sen.-elect Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, is replacing outgoing Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, who had been the most visible supporter of the boys ranch in the Legislature. While Kerschen said he doesn’t expect to be as vocal as Kelsey, he supports the ranch and will work to persuade lawmakers from other parts of the state to fund it adequately.

He said he plans to lean on the credibility and relationships he built as a member of the House of Representatives before defeating Kelsey for the Senate seat he will assume in January.

“They (other legislators) need to respect you,” he said. “If you have that respect, I think you’ll get the votes.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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