Politics & Government

Some Sedgwick County commissioners want to reopen boys ranch

The question of resurrecting a Judge Riddel Boys Ranch-style reform facility in Sedgwick County comes as juvenile corrections systems nationwide are starting to reform offenders at home with their families instead of sending them to live and be treated elsewhere.
The question of resurrecting a Judge Riddel Boys Ranch-style reform facility in Sedgwick County comes as juvenile corrections systems nationwide are starting to reform offenders at home with their families instead of sending them to live and be treated elsewhere. File photo

Some Sedgwick County commissioners want to spend millions to reopen the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch even though studies show taking juvenile offenders out of their homes for treatment is expensive and largely ineffective.

The commission’s conservative majority last month instructed county staff members to include money to revive the aging Lake Afton campus or open a similar reform home in its 2016 spending requests. Costs to do so have been estimated at $5.5 million, with the bulk of the investment shouldered by county taxpayers.

For commissioners Richard Ranzau, Jim Howell and Karl Peterjohn, there’s no doubt the county should bring back what the ranch offered: a second chance for troubled kids in their home county.

“The success stories are long,” Howell said. “If you don’t have Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, and you send these kids across the state of Kansas or you just simply lock them up in a JDF (juvenile detention facility) or a kiddie prison in Topeka, there’s less good outcomes.”

But others think a reopening is premature because it’s immediately unclear how and whether the Kansas Department of Corrections and the 2016 Legislature will change juvenile justice policies in light of studies that say out-of-home placements are not the future of youth reform.

“Evidence has shown if you use counseling and interviewing and motivational techniques in a family situation with the offenders and his family and his siblings, they all get the benefit,” commissioner Dave Unruh said.

“We need to wait and see what the state’s going to do and fund and what is their strategy going forward with juvenile corrections and respond to that,” he said, rather than starting a program that state Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts “doesn’t want.”

Reform at home

The question of resurrecting a Judge Riddel Boys Ranch-style reform facility in Sedgwick County comes as juvenile corrections systems nationwide are starting to reform offenders at home with their families instead of sending them to live and be treated elsewhere.

According to a growing body of research, long stays in juvenile prisons and youth residential facilities don’t produce better outcomes than other sanctions for bad behavior. The so-called out-of-home placements also may not be the best investment, studies indicate.

Last year, when he was a state legislator, Howell asked the state to produce a study of youth residential center II facilities – the classification given to the boys ranch – to help gauge their costs and effectiveness.

Prior to the study, most of those facilities did not track re-offense rates, and the state had no common standards for running them, he said.

The resulting report found that while the corrections department “relies heavily” on YRCIIs, spending in excess of $16 million on them in 2014, operating costs are high – $45,990 per bed per year – and discharges successful less than half of the time.

Other than juvenile correctional facilities, or youth prisons, YRCIIs were the “the most significant single” youth programming expense in the corrections department’s budget, according to the report.

A Council of State Governments report from March that analyzes and makes recommendations based on the numbers says Kansas YRCIIs may be unaware of or unable to “effectively address” the needs of juvenile offenders. It also says the amount of time an offender spends away from home and decisions about his or her re-entry into the community are based more on judge and service provider discretion than a juvenile’s “risks and needs and the efficient use of resources.”

The Council of State Governments is expected to present a final report that assesses the entire Kansas juvenile justice system to the Department of Corrections this summer.

The assessment will give government leaders, legislators and the judicial system a chance to make “potentially significant reforms,” including to YRCIIs, during the 2016 legislative session, according to the YRCII cost study.

The expectation is widescale change that moves away from using out-of-home residential care.

Ranzau, the commission chairman, called the studies “flawed” because they exclude the ranch. He said a community-based program that seeks to reform offenders in their family homes through counseling “isn’t a substitute” for YRCIIs.

He likened a total shift to such programs to eliminating prisons for adults. “The people in the community greatly support” the ranch, he said.

To others, such as longtime commissioner Tim Norton, the studies make sense.

“Over the years, I supported the ranch … and that model, we thought, worked for many, many years,” he said. “We were loyal to it. But things do change.”

Norton said he decided spending taxpayer dollars to keep the ranch going “wasn’t prudent” after seeing the new research.

“There are plenty of beds in Sedgwick County on the private side that can do the same things we did at Judge Riddel. Maybe not as well,” he said “but I think some kind of family-engagement model is the way of the future.”

Ranch’s success touted

The boys ranch at the center of so much local debate opened as an orphanage in 1961 and became a youth rehabilitation facility in 1979. Located southwest of Goddard, the 49-bed, 63-acre campus boasted “ranch style treatment,” including horses, for boys with severe behavior issues.

Education, independent-living, job-readiness, parenting and behavior management courses and counseling were among services offered. The cost was roughly $200 per bed per day.

Assessments of the program by Wichita State University touted its success and urged officials to continue funding it to keep local juvenile crime rates on the decline. On average, 60 percent of boys completed Judge Riddel’s program between 2007 and 2011, according to information provided by the county. Only 23 percent went on to commit a new crime within a year of being discharged.

Howell, who said in his campaign for commissioner that he would reopen the ranch, called it “uniquely effective” in reforming juvenile offenders. He attributes the ranch’s success rate to county-funded programming that went above and beyond that offered at other YRCIIs.

But commissioners voted to shut it down in July, saying the county could no longer afford to close the sizable gap between the ranch’s operating costs and what the state paid. A growing list of needed improvements to the aging facility also was a concern.

Howell said closing the ranch was a mistake.

“A YRCII is basically giving a kid a chance to re-evaluate his life and to rethink his opportunities and to re-engage,” he said. “And Judge Riddel Boys Ranch has got very good data over the years that say it’s very effective.”

Since the ranch’s closure, between 18 and 30 Sedgwick County boys have been sent to YRCIIs in other counties, according to seven months of population snapshots provided by county staff members. Others are being housed locally.

Currently, there are four criminal reform YRCIIs operating in Sedgwick County: two run by the private for-profit organization Sequel of Kansas, one by the Salvation Army and the county-operated Sedgwick County Youth Program.

Combined, they have space for 109 boys and 14 girls – nearly a third of the total capacity of YRCIIs statewide in May. An average of 40 Sedgwick County boys were served at the in-county facilities for each of the months in the snapshots.

Howell said sending teens out of the county for treatment “just makes it to where these families cannot engage with their son or their kid ... and that, in my opinion, makes the (YRCII) program less effective.”

“We’re a nice, big populated county; we ought to have a resource right here to serve the majority of the people,” Howell said.

Unruh says that while it’s true the ranch served a “more difficult group” of offenders than other YRCIIs might be dealing with, county taxpayers should not be paying “a million and a half dollars” annually to reform people sentenced to custody of the state.

“That expense belongs in the state budget,” he said.

Other options

During a February county staff meeting where he was asked to give cost estimates to reopen the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, Sedgwick County corrections director Mark Masterson told commissioners it would take more than $4.2 million to revive and run though the end of the year, then another $3.3 million to operate starting in 2016. The figure doesn’t include about $2 million in needed sewer and other repairs.

Although commissioners have asked staff members to figure costs to reopen the ranch into their spending requests, Ranzau said recently that “all options” are under consideration.

Among them: opening a new youth residential center at a different location that houses both troubled boys and girls or partnering with a private organization to bring Riddel-like programming to an existing Sedgwick County YRCII.

“At this point, I’d be interested in getting a better understanding of what the options are and getting the price tag for what options,” Peterjohn said.

“This commission is united to reduce recidivism,” he said. “I believe that the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch program was a very valuable tool and the community suffered a loss since it’s been terminated.”

Also under consideration is a proposal by county corrections to spend $210,000 on a program that would help Sedgwick County assess its current juvenile justice practices, including out-of-home placements; train staff; and adopt a family-focused approach over an 18-month period.

Masterson urged commissioners at the February meeting to pursue the program rather than pushing forward immediately with a boys ranch revival. Although he said the need for the YRCIIs would never be eliminated, demand for them is on the decline, largely due to successful crime prevention and early intervention programs that have created steady drops in juvenile arrest numbers over the past decade.

In an e-mailed response to questions, corrections department spokesman Adam Pfannenstiel said that the state corrections department and the corrections secretary “believe in offering more … community-based services” in its efforts to reform juvenile offenders, because research suggests they are the “best practice.”

Asked whether the department thinks there will be a continued needs for YRCIIs, Pfannenstiel wrote that the future is unknown but that “we anticipate that our provider network will look different this time next year.”

“The Department of Corrections will continue to work on providing services that are in best practice and evidenced based,” he said.

Funding in question

Talk about reopening the ranch comes at the same time that 17 county-backed organizations – including the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place – have been put on notice that their funding could be reduced in the upcoming year in an effort to close a perceived budget deficit of $10 million to $12 million.

The commission will adopt a final budget on Aug. 12.

Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan, who opposes reopening the ranch, said it doesn’t “make a good deal of sense” to spend county money on it now that the effectiveness of out-of-home treatments has been called into question. He said the commission should wait to make decisions until it understands how the corrections department and the Legislature will proceed next year.

Ranzau disagrees.

“If we have something we believe actually works, are we just going to turn our backs on it because the state won’t pay the full thing? We’ve done it for decades,” he said.

Referencing a July 2012 letter to commissioners from a Wichita State University criminal justice professor that estimated the ranch saved local taxpayers slightly more than $1 million a year by averting crimes, Ranzau added: “Either you pay for it upfront or you pay for it by increased crime in the community. So which one do you want?”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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