New round of worries for Riddel Boys Ranch

Sedgwick County is once again considering closing the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton. Right now it will stay open through next June then close. (July 10, 2013)
Sedgwick County is once again considering closing the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton. Right now it will stay open through next June then close. (July 10, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

Six months away from possibly having to close their ranch for juvenile offenders, Sedgwick County officials and local legislators made their case for more state funding to keep it open during a Wednesday meeting with state Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts.

They got no promises, as Roberts questioned the amount spent on staffing at the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch near Lake Afton. He also repeatedly noted that the state has a surplus of bed space for the type of juvenile offenders held at the ranch.

And he said if he raises the amount the state pays toward operation of the ranch, he would have to raise it for other programs, costing his department an estimated $10 million it doesn’t have.

The boys ranch is situated on 63 wooded acres 23 miles west of Wichita. It serves about 40 boys at any given time with a comprehensive program of secured housing, education, counseling and vocational training.

Boys sent to the ranch are considered by the courts to be at medium to high risk of going on to commit additional crimes in the future.

According to a county study covering 2007 to 2011, about 55 to 70 percent of the boys who are sent to the ranch successfully complete their program. And of those who do, 70 to 84 percent don’t re-offend in the year after their release.

But one thing troubling Roberts, his staff and some legislators is that while Sedgwick County keeps data on recidivism, other youth offender programs don’t. That makes it difficult to make comparisons to gauge the effectiveness of the program.

The boys ranch dodged closure this year after a one-time infusion of $750,000 from the state for the last half of 2013 and the first half of 2014.

However, in the meeting held at the ranch Wednesday, County Manager William Buchanan told Roberts and his staff that the cost of running the facility is about $201 per boy per day, while the state provides only $126.

If the state would pay the actual cost, the county would pay the millions of dollars needed for repairs and improvements. Without additional money, he said he will recommend closing the facility July 1.

“These children are your responsibility,” Buchanan told the state officials. “We hope you would do your best for them.”

The $126 reimbursement rate was set in 2007 and hasn’t been changed since, officials said. That drew a reaction from Jim Howell, a Republican state representative from Derby, who is running for a seat on the County Commission.

“I think it would be reasonable to say seven years is a long time for this economy,” he said.

Roberts, however, said that there are other facilities, both private and public, that get by just fine on $126 a day. He noted that the staffing at the boys ranch makes up 79 percent of its budget, compared with the more jail-like, state-run juvenile corrections facilities in Topeka and Larned, where staffing is about 60 percent of spending.

“It’s a choice to have staffing at that level,” Roberts said. “I’m not saying if it’s good or bad.”

But, he added that in his long experience with adult corrections, “You often have to operate with less staff and become more efficient.”

He also said that Kansas has a glut of space for juvenile offenders like the ones at the ranch. There are 493 beds available in youth residential centers in the state, but the average daily population is only 365, he said.

In addition, there’s space for 422 in the state’s juvenile corrections facilities and only 322 of those beds are filled.

County officials defended the ranch, saying that it provides much more in the way of programming to help young offenders straighten their lives out and become productive people.

Mark Masterson, director of the county’s corrections effort, stressed that the boys ranch has to be licensed through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which has mandatory staffing levels that don’t apply to the juvenile correction facilities. In addition, he said the boys ranch had changed its staffing from three eight-hour shifts a day to two 12-hour shifts and cut counselors from five to two to reduce costs.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau, a consistent opponent of government spending, said he supports money for the ranch. He said he thinks it saves money long-term by turning young offenders around before they become hardened criminals and end up with long prison terms as adults.

“If you want to look at the state budget, I’ll help you find $10 million in a heartbeat,” he told Roberts.

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