Sedgwick County has banned its juvenile justice staff from participating in a Friday legislative hearing on plans to close a county-run boys ranch for young offenders, county and state officials said.
Although the hearing will be held in a county building and the county sent out a news release announcing it, the non-participation of county staff has opened a rift between State Sen. Dick Kelsey and County Manager William Buchanan.
A $9.3-million budget shortfall has forced the county to consider closing the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch near Lake Afton in the western part of the county.
Such an action would shed the equivalent of 54 full-time jobs from the county payroll. The facility provides 24-hour residential care and programming for up to 49 male offenders ages 14-20.
At present, it costs $201 a day for each boy in the program, while the state only funds $126 a day.
According to Buchanan and a county analysis, closing the boys ranch would save $1.8 million a year in operating costs, plus $2.6 million on repairs and improvements that are needed at the facility.
Kelsey invited the entire South Central Kansas Legislative delegation to Friday’s hearing with an eye toward trying to save the program, which all involved acknowledge has been effective in turning young men away from lives of crime.
He said he’s disappointed and troubled that the county is essentially boycotting the meeting.
“We need to be informed by the folks who are actually doing the work … the people who actually deal with the kids,” Kelsey said. “I’m hopeful that the legislators from the south-central delegation will understand how important this is – and I don’t think some of them do now. It’s going to be difficult for that to happen without their (the county’s) input.”
But Buchanan said that state lawmakers were informed of the potential closure months ago and county efforts to get more funding from the state were fruitless.
“They’ve known about this issue since February,” Buchanan said. “We’ve testified in the appropriate committees and talked to (state Juvenile Justice Authority) staff twice – and gotten nothing.”
The fate of the ranch is a County Commission decision and Friday’s hearing “is not our meeting,” he added.
He said Kelsey had written an opinion column for The Eagle earlier this month, correctly characterizing it as a state funding issue.
“I don’t know what the big deal is not having us there,” he said.
Buchanan said the commissioners will discuss the boys ranch during its weekly staff meeting Tuesday, which is open to the public. He said the commission also will be holding formal public hearings leading up to a vote on the budget on Aug. 15, providing opportunities for legislators to make their thoughts known, Buchanan said.
If the boys ranch is closed, youths could be placed in a number of local residential facilities including Lakeside of Kansas and Kings Treatment Center in Goddard, or a Salvation Army facility and the Sedgwick County Youth Program in Wichita, the county report said.
Buchanan said only about six boys ranch inmates would have to be relocated to the county Juvenile Detention Facility, a much less bucolic setting near the interchange of Kellogg and I-135 in Wichita.
According to a letter to the county by Wichita State University criminal justice professor Delores Craig-Moreland, the local alternatives to the boys ranch are typically full.
“The population currently referred (to the boys ranch) would likely wind up in either Junction City or Topeka, where there are larger facilities,” Craig-Moreland wrote. “This puts the youth far removed from their school program and from their family and the case management team. All these factors impact ultimate success because it makes much more difficult transitions for youth with a history of unsuccessful connections with various services.”
Her analysis said that from 2004 through 2009, about 41 percent of the youths from the boys ranch program committed new offenses after their release. That’s about 27 percent lower than would be expected for the offender population referred to the ranch, she said.
Kelsey is the former half-owner of Kings Treatment Center, a for-profit camp near the Riddel ranch providing residential alcohol and drug treatment for youth offenders.
Kelsey said the business was profitable and remains so for its new owners. He suggested privatizing the boys ranch might be a way to save it.
“How can a private company do it and make money on it?” he said.
The legislative hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at the county’s Human Services/Comcare building, 635 N. Main.
The County Commission staff meeting will be at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the county courthouse, 525 N. Main.