TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback announced Monday that he intends to merge Kansas’ troubled juvenile justice agency with the adult Department of Corrections system, arguing that two critical legislative audits in the past five months show the need to abandon “a failed social-services approach” to handling young offenders.
Brownback contends the juvenile facilities and programs would be better managed under the Department of Corrections and says money that’s going toward administration of the Juvenile Justice Authority could instead be diverted into programs for offenders.
The governor’s plan to issue an executive order early next year to the GOP-controlled Legislature received the immediate endorsement of incoming Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a former county prosecutor. Under the state constitution, Brownback will have 30 days to issue the order once legislators convene their 2013 session in mid-January. Lawmakers will then have 60 days to reject it, or the order will take effect on July 1.
Brownback removed the Juvenile Justice Authority’s top two officials earlier this year and put a Department of Corrections official in charge. Later, the legislative audits questioned the authority’s handling of safety issues and suggested education programs for young offenders aren’t up to par.
The state separated juvenile justice programs in 1997 from the agency that became the Department for Children and Families, partly to give the programs more attention and partly to hold young offenders more accountable. Brownback said the agency’s recent problems – and the ones predating the authority’s creation – demonstrate that corrections professionals should run juvenile programs and centers.
“A long-term solution is to increase the emphasis on safety at our youth facilities,” Brownback said during a Statehouse news conference. “This has been an area of problem for some period of time.”
Brownback said the Juvenile Justice Authority will become a division of the Department of Corrections, with a deputy secretary. He said he intends to appoint Acting Juvenile Justice Commissioner Terri Williams, a former deputy corrections secretary, to the position and praised her for doing “a very good job in a difficult set of circumstances.”
The Department of Corrections houses about 9,400 adult offenders, running seven prisons and a mental health center with an annual budget of about $282 million. The Juvenile Justice Authority oversees programs for 1,500 young offenders, housing about 330 of them at juvenile corrections centers in Topeka and Larned, and has an annual budget of $90 million.
Bruce, a conservative Hutchinson Republican, called Brownback’s plan prudent, particularly for offenders housed in the Topeka and Larned centers.
“By the time an offender is required to serve in that situation, you need to acknowledge that it needs to be in a structured corrections environment,” Bruce said.
Last year, Brownback proposed folding the state’s juvenile justice programs into the Department of Children and Families. However, key Republican legislators argued that the plan was hastily conceived and ignored history, and the governor backed off.
Since then, two of the biggest GOP critics of the plan, Sens. Tim Owens of Overland Park and Dick Kelsey of Goddard, have lost Republican primaries for re-election. Another Republican skeptic, Rep. Pat Colloton, of Leawood, chairwoman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate.
In March, Brownback fired Juvenile Justice Commissioner Curtis Whitten and Deputy Commissioner Dennis Casarona. Brownback’s administration declined to say why they were removed, but the audits suggested significant problems.
The first audit in July said the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka, which houses about 220 male offenders and 20 female offenders, has not taken adequate steps to protect the safety of offenders and staff and that the problems were compounded by poor management.
The second audit last month said educational programs at the complex don’t adequately prepare offenders for future jobs and that the Juvenile Justice Authority had taken a “hands-off approach” to education programs.
Williams has acknowledged the past problems and said the authority was working to make improvements. But she endorsed Brownback’s proposed merger, saying it would allow her to focus far less on administrative and computer issues and far more on programs for young offenders.
Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts said: “I believe that consolidation will make both agencies stronger and help us to be better equipped to manage a comprehensive correctional system.”