Facing a $9.5 million deficit, the Sedgwick County Commission will likely close the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, a commissioner says.
The 51-year-old facility is seen as a model program for helping seriously troubled juveniles not commit more crimes.
A judge who oversees the court’s juvenile department said that closing the Boys Ranch would be a “huge loss.” A criminal justice professor said it would mean that some teenagers would end up at facilities far from home.
Closing the ranch would save the county between $1 million and $2 million annually. Some of the savings would be offset by higher costs at the Juvenile Detention Facility, which is also funded by the county, because without the Boys Ranch more youths would be housed at the detention facility on South Hydraulic.
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Since 1961, the Boys Ranch has been a temporary home to boys and young men who live, take classes, learn job skills and get therapy and intensive supervision at a facility located on a wooded tract at Lake Afton, about 23 miles from downtown Wichita. About 40 live there, ranging in age from 14 to 20. Their average stay is 150 days.
Boys Ranch supporters say it is a proven investment that reshapes lives and ultimately lowers costs and that it protects the public by helping to prevent crimes.
But with county commissioners having to cut so much, “I am sorry to say that I believe that this (closing the Boys Ranch) gets us a big step toward our goal” of eliminating the deficit, said Commissioner Dave Unruh.
The county’s 2012 budget was $412 million.
He said it’s “likely we will agree with the manager’s decision to close … it’s just a hard matter of financial mathematics.”
Commissioner Jim Skelton said, “I just don’t want to say that, but Dave might be right.”
Skelton said, “I want to find a way to keep it open, and I think there’s other commissioners who want to keep it open. But it’s all pretty ugly right now” because of a budget deficit resulting from lower tax revenue and a sluggish economy.
Commissioner Tim Norton, the commission chairman, said it is too early for him to say whether the Boys Ranch is likely to close. “It has been recognized as a really good program,” but there are multiple cost concerns, Norton said.
The county pays more than it gets from the state to operate the facility: It costs $201 per resident per day, and the state pays $126 of that. Also, Norton said, “It’s an old building. It’s been there for many, many years. It needs some major repairs … we’ve put it together with duct tape and bailing wire for the past five years.”
County Manager William Buchanan said the staff has proposed closing the Boys Ranch but that the issue remains under study. “We’re facing a nine-and-a-half-million deficit … that we want to get to zero,” which means tough decisions, Buchanan said.
The Boys Ranch “provides a good service, and we know the results,” he said. “The staff, we all hate this.”
Buchanan said the facility needs about $2.5 million in repairs or improvements now. The cost of a new facility and furnishings has been estimated at $14.7 million.
Mark Masterson, director of the county’s Department of Corrections, said the current structure has been well maintained and that improvements could be phased in.
A recommended county budget is due to the commission by July 18. Then there will be public budget hearings, and the commission will make a decision on the budget on Aug. 15. The Boys Ranch would close sometime after that if commissioners vote to close it. “It might be smart to close it gradually at the end of the semester” this coming winter, Buchanan said.
Jim Burgess, presiding judge of the District Court juvenile department, said Friday that closing the Boys Ranch “would be a huge loss” and that “there is really nothing else like it in the state.” The facility serves county youths and their families, and it helps to keep the boys in their home county, he said.
The youths who go to the Boys Ranch have been assessed to be at moderate to high risk for committing new crimes. Many have anger problems, and the Boys Ranch has a specific program to help manage anger, Burgess said. The detention facility does what it can to help change behavior, but “detention is not a program,” he said, “where the Boys Ranch can get in there and work with them 24/7 with some very specific programming.”
A study by Wichita State University has shown that residents of the Boys Ranch have a much better outcome than other high-risk juveniles — that they are much less apt to commit crimes after leaving the facility.
For example, the percentage of ranch residents who reoffended a year after graduating in 2009 was 48 percent, compared with an expected norm of 75 to 88 percent, said Delores Craig-Moreland, a WSU criminal justice professor who wrote a memo to the county manager and staff expressing her concerns about the impact of closing the program.
(In most years, the recidivism rate has been even lower than the 48 percent in 2009. In 2009, 43 percent of those who were counted as recidivists had that status because they violated their supervision, not because they committed new crimes.)
Craig-Moreland calculated that over a 10-year period, the reduction in crime stemming from the Boys Ranch program would add up to 390 fewer criminals to house at the Sedgwick County Jail.
The Boys Ranch “is in a class all its own throughout the state of Kansas,” she said. “It uses evidenced-based programs and practices to achieve the good recidivism results.” Other providers, especially local ones, don’t have the capacity to take in Boys Ranch residents “without lengthy delays resulting in higher detention costs,” she said.
The residents of the Boys Ranch would probably end up in larger facilities in Junction City or Topeka, away from their families, local school programs and case managers, she said. “When you take them away from this place, that just makes an already difficult situation just that much more difficult,” she said.
Nate Davis, 28, said he spent about six months at the Boys Ranch in 1998. He turned 14 while there, and “it was a great program” for him at the time because it offered lots of hands-on activities, Davis said. He got to work with horses there — part of a therapeutic program that teaches responsibility — and he got to work in a garden. He had never had that kind of experience before. He had his first paying job there, doing building maintenance and cleanup.
The staff “cared about us. They were really engaged in helping us be successful,” Davis said.
He now works in Wichita as program coordinator for a Christian youth ministry.
Over the years, partners have worked with the Boys Ranch to help the teenagers. The Wichita school district has provided teachers at no cost to the county. In 2008 and 2009, Junior League of Wichita partnered with the Boys Ranch to build a teaching kitchen, and Junior League members held cooking classes for the teens.
In a letter earlier this year about the partnership, Junior League president Katy Dorrah wrote: “Pairs of volunteers worked with groups of four boys for six sessions of cooking and dining together. Sharing the meal and enjoying the undivided attention of the volunteers seemed to do wonders for the boys’ self-esteem.”
Masterson, director of the county’s Department of Corrections, wrote in an e-mail that many of the boys at the ranch have “experienced significant trauma,” adding that while “some go on to a life of crime and prison … many do not,” partly because of their ranch experience.
“I do not believe we have a suitable alternative” for the ranch, he wrote.
Personnel costs are “by far the largest driver” of the ranch costs, Masterson said, adding that a state licensing regulation requires a staff-to-client ratio of 1 to 7 during waking hours and 1 to 10 during sleeping hours.
During a budget workshop this past week, Bob Lamkey, the county’s public safety director, said Masterson’s recommendation was to reduce staffing by six full-time positions. If the ranch closes, 54 positions would be lost.
Lamkey said there needs to be a public discussion about the possibility of closing the ranch because once it would close, it would be “very, very difficult” to resurrect it.
Lamkey said the ranch is where “we reshape kids” to be productive citizens and that the situation brings up the dilemma of “pay me now or pay me later.”
“I also understand that you have difficult choices,” Lamkey told the commissioners.