TOPEKA — Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, has a plan that he says can save Judge Riddel Boys Ranch from closing in the near future.
Howell plans to introduce a bill this week that would separate facilities for juvenile offenders into a different class from facilities that house children in the Department of Children and Families system in terms of funding and regulations. The bill also would mandate a new cost study to determine how much money these facilities require per resident and whether high-risk offenders necessitate more funds than low-risk residents.
“What does it actually cost?” Howell said. “To me this is a good distinction because I think the funding level (needed for the two categories of youth) is probably not really the same. They don’t have same needs.”
Howell notes that the juvenile offenders are already housed at different facilities from other youth, so it makes sense to fund and regulate them separately.
Mark Masterson, director of Department of Corrections for Sedgwick County, agrees. The youth have been separated because they have different needs and funding should reflect that, he said.
“When you’re working in a public safety setting, the intensity is different than working (with) the youth in foster care,” Masterson said. “It’s a different business.”
Both the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Department for Children and Families, the two agencies that would be directly affected, said they could not comment on Howell’s bill before seeing the language.
Jeremy Barclay, spokesman for the Corrections Department, said the agency would want to make sure any changes to funding for juvenile offenders would not adversely affect the money going to children being served by DCF.
“We want to make sure all the children in our state get the services they need,” he said.
The bill would also provide financial incentives for facilities that meet performance standards and successfully rehabilitate youth.
“Good government has incentives,” Howell said.
Howell hopes tying funding to a facility’s performance will help increase the effectiveness of these programs.
“These kids, if you don’t have programming, they’ll end up in prison,” Howell said. “And by the way, before they get there they’ll have a victim along the way.”
Howell introduced a similar bill last year, but it did not make it to the floor for debate.
Howell also plans to make an appropriations request to Judge Riddel Boys Ranch on Tuesday for $750,000 to keep the facility operating in fiscal year 2015. Howell also will introduce a bill this week that he hopes will create a more stable future for Judge Riddel and similar facilities.
Masterson said that commitment to fund the ranch in 2015 along with a longer-term solution would help the ranch retain skilled staff.
However, Howell says that an announcement made last week by Sedgwick County that it will approve bonuses for the ranch’s employees has made his job significantly more difficult.
The bonuses are meant to create an incentive for employees to stay on at the ranch despite an uncertain future. But Howell, who is running for a seat on the county commission, says the $190,000 the county has agreed to potentially spend makes it difficult to argue that the facility is underfunded.
The county has repeatedly said it requires more state funding to stay open, but Howell said approving bonuses suggests otherwise.
“I would argue they have $200,000 they can put at this problem,” he said. “Apparently.”
Masterson, however, said the offer of bonuses was a necessity. The uncertainty of the ranch’s future has severely compromised his ability to retain experienced employees, which jeopardizes the ability of the facility to operate safely, he said.
“People are leaving in droves,” Masterson said. “We can’t lose any more experienced employees.”
County Commissioner Jim Skelton, the incumbent Howell will face in the Republican primary, echoed those thoughts. He said the state has underfunded the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch for too long.
“The state has hired Sedgwick County to run the program,” Skelton said. “We’ve got a customer not paying their whole bill.”
He said ranch employees deserved bonuses as compensation for working long hours with limited resources.
Howell said county commissioners knew he was working on a long-term solution but failed to contact him about the bonuses.
“They should have contacted me,” Howell said. “They should have communicated to the employees that there’s people working on solutions.”
Howell has also criticized the Department of Corrections for not making contingency plans if the ranch closes. He said there is insufficient bed space at other facilities in Sedgwick County to take in the ranch’s boys if the facility closes.
Barclay said the agency’s data showed an excess of bed space for youth available in Sedgwick County, but noted that it would be up to Sedgwick County – and not the state Department of Corrections – to decide where to place youth in the event that the ranch closes.