The Judge Riddel Boys Ranch in Sedgwick County doesn’t lack for champions of its cost-effective approach to juvenile justice. But it won’t keep its doors open without buy-in from the Brownback administration and sustainable funding via the Legislature – both hard to get when its local and legislative advocates can’t agree on a workable way forward and aren’t a united front at the Statehouse.
The ranch did inspire a moment of rare bipartisanship on the House floor last week, with nine area Republicans supporting an unsuccessful attempt by Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, to allocate another $750,000 for it. And it was at the forefront of a hearing on a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, to create a new category of youth residential center and a more long-term funding strategy (though the bill includes no money).
Despite those efforts – which weren’t aided by the conflict over the issue apparent among area legislators and even among Sedgwick County commissioners – the ranch would seem to be closer to closure sometime this summer. The key remains getting the state to pay more than the current rate of $126 a day per boy, which is short of the $201 it costs the county. The 2013 Legislature secured another $750,000 for the ranch, which helped keep it open until now. But the county, already under budget pressure from the downturn and declining state dollars, cannot be expected to continue to subsidize what is a state program.
There’s been a failure to communicate the unique value of the ranch to Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts. He has his own severe budget problems, with many more to come as the income-tax cuts continue to shrink state revenues. And Roberts said last week that his department needs more time to analyze data on juvenile facilities, also expressing doubt about the ranch’s effectiveness at reducing recidivism.
Many ranch proponents’ hopes were deflated in December, when Roberts questioned the amount spent on staffing and noted the state has a surplus of bed space for the type of juvenile offenders held at the ranch.
The staffing scrutiny is especially frustrating coming from the state, given that the ranch’s staffing levels are mandated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Some lawmakers were understandably put off by the county’s recent decision to dedicate $190,000 to bonuses, though something needed to be done to slow staff turnover. And it’s hard not to attribute some of the unproductive disagreement over the ranch to the fact that Howell is challenging Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton in the GOP primary in August.
As it is, a good program seems to be nearing its end, without enough consideration for what’s best for either the boys now at the ranch or those who might benefit from it in the future.