Lawmakers shouldn’t rubber-stamp Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to eliminate the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority. The reorganization may be prudent, given problems at the authority and the state’s budget shortfall, but lawmakers need to carefully consider the potential impact on troubled teens and public safety.
Brownback announced last week that he will issue an executive reorganization order in January to fold the JJA into the Kansas Department of Corrections. Lawmakers then will have 60 days to block the order, if they choose.
Brownback cited recent audit findings that the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka had lax security and poor management and was not doing enough to prepare offenders for life outside the correctional system. “Moving JJA to KDOC will increase the emphasis on safety while continuing to provide programs proven to get our youth back on the right path,” Brownback said in a statement.
The facility in Topeka certainly has had problems. But does the state need to eliminate JJA in order to fix that particular situation?
The Legislature created JJA in 1997 because other agencies weren’t doing a good job with juveniles. The emphasis at JJA is intervention aimed at keeping kids from becoming adult criminals.
Though Brownback has disparaged this “social service focus,” the biggest problem with the authority in recent years has been its lack of funding, not its philosophy.
Sedgwick County’s 2013 legislative platform notes that “large funding reductions for prevention have shifted costs to the county and resulted in closure of necessary early intervention services that provide mentoring, truancy and juvenile offender diversion.” The county also is considering closing the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch because the state isn’t funding it adequately.
That said, the reality is that Brownback’s tax cuts will create a major budget shortfall. As a result, the state will need to look for ways to be more efficient, and merging JJA into KDOC could help reduce some administrative expenses.
Ray Roberts, secretary of KDOC, also acknowledged that “there are some distinct differences in program needs and management strategies for juveniles,” and he said that KDOC would “continue the rehabilitation of the juvenile population.”
Last year Brownback proposed moving some JJA programs into the Department for Children and Families. But several GOP legislators opposed the plan, noting that it ignored the history of why JJA was created.
Several of those lawmakers – including Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard – were targeted for defeat by Brownback this past election, so the governor will have a more compliant Legislature next year. But lawmakers’ job isn’t to give Brownback whatever he wants. They have a duty to scrutinize the JJA order and determine whether it really is the best solution for kids and the state.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee