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Amended juvenile justice bill gives hope to backers of boys ranch

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at 7:30 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 10:45 a.m.

— Sedgwick County lawmakers hoping to save the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch won a partial victory Thursday when the House approved an amendment to have the Department of Corrections gather data to quantify what’s working in juvenile corrections programs across the state.

The department also would conduct a cost study to determine what the state should pay for basic juvenile offender programs and for any add-ons designed to reduce recidivism.

The amendment, by Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, was attached to House Bill 2633, a broader bill to make several changes to the juvenile justice system.

The amendment passed on a voice vote and the underlying bill passed minutes later on a vote of 122-1. It now goes to the Senate.

The Howell amendment doesn’t include additional state funding for the financially troubled boys ranch at Lake Afton in western Sedgwick County.

Howell said he’d have been ruled out of order if he tried that, but he does plan to seek funding when the House debates the corrections budget bill.

Sedgwick County, which owns and operates the facility, has said it could close the ranch June 30 if the state doesn’t provide more money. The county spends $201 per boy per day, more than the $126 it receives from the state.

The ranch has been kept afloat so far this year by a $750,000 state grant.

The Howell amendment could benefit the ranch long-term if Sedgwick County officials decide to keep the facility open.

County officials and local legislators say the ranch’s program of intensive education, work and counseling is more effective in turning youth away from a life of crime than the more basic programs offered at other youth correctional facilities.

“What this program has been doing is giving these kids stability and guidance so they don’t go back,” said Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, who joined Howell at the podium to support the amendment.

The Howell amendment calls for performance measurements to determine the effectiveness of various anti-recidivism programs, which the Riddel ranch provides in addition to the basic safety and security of a juvenile jail.

For programs that are found to be effective, the cost study would determine how much the provider of those services should be paid.

Although it’s more costly up front, the boys ranch program holds state costs down in the long run by reducing recidivism and eliminating future incarceration costs, Goico said.

In addition, it is “saving the hidden cost of the victims who may be victimized along the way,” he said.

But both Howell and Goico said that cost considerations are secondary to the moral dimensions.

“We want to save these kids,” Goico said.

“Absolutely,” Howell responded. “That’s the No. 1 reason.”

In addition to the Howell amendment, the bill would:

• Raise the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult to 14. Current state law allows 10-year-olds to be tried as adults.

• Require risk assessments for juvenile offenders to predict the likelihood they will commit more crimes.

• Change juvenile sentencing law to require a hearing before a youth could be sentenced to incarceration, if an adult who committed the same offense would be presumed to get probation.

• Standardize good-time credit for youth offenders to give them an incentive to behave while incarcerated.

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

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