Kansas lawmakers are considering changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, including boosting services like anger management and counseling that would allow young offenders to stay at home instead of being sent to a detention facility.
Senate Bill 367 would end the state’s use of youth residential facilities, or group homes, by mid-2018.
“The bill really focuses in on them (offenders) that are actually at higher risk and provides expanded community services to eliminate the need for the current out-of-home placement system,” Sedgwick County corrections director Mark Masterson said. “That’s an arguable point on whether that’s a good thing or not a good thing. That’s still being debated in the Legislature.”
The bill is scheduled to be considered by the full Senate on Monday.
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Supporters say the bill would reform a system that punishes juvenile offenders in an ineffective and expensive way.
We’ve got to cut back on incarceration and out-of-home placements and not just back a little. The time has come for big changes.
Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
“We’ve got to cut back on incarceration and out-of-home placements and not just back a little. The time has come for big changes,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “We’ve got to shift the funding and the focus that we have been spending on incarceration, which doesn’t work, and shift that funding and focus to local community programs that the research shows works better.”
But county and district attorneys across the state say the changes go too far in upending the state’s juvenile justice system. They also have concerns with the timeline and how the programs would be funded.
SB 367 is akin to prescribing 100 medications, invasive surgery and chemotherapy all at once.
Kansas County and District Attorneys Association written testimony
“A doctor doesn't diagnose a problem by throwing every conceivable treatment at a patient unless life-saving measures are required,” according to written testimony from the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association. “SB 367 is akin to prescribing 100 medications, invasive surgery and chemotherapy all at once. If the patient is cured, it's anybody's guess as to what worked.”
What the bill does
Under the 112-page bill, the Kansas Department of Corrections could:
▪ Invest in new community programs “in conjunction with the reduction in out-of-home placements”
▪ End the state’s use of youth residential facilities, or group homes, by July 2018
▪ Offer juvenile offenders charged with a misdemeanor a choice to enroll in an immediate intervention program
▪ Assemble a team to review juvenile cases when intervention plans aren’t followed
▪ Set up a system for exchanging confidential juvenile offender data between agencies
▪ Boost training for juvenile corrections officers on evidence-based programs and practices
▪ Establish an oversight committee
Now, children who commit crimes may be considered for out-of-home placement. For instance, they could be sent to stay at a juvenile detention facility or a youth residential facility, which is like a group or foster home that provides 24-hour-a-day care for juveniles.
Supporters say incarceration is ineffective in helping juvenile offenders get back on track.
“If we haven’t done anything to address the other issues in that kid’s life, we’re just sending them right back to where they started. And nobody should be surprised when we don’t get good results,” Magnuson said. “Community programs, on the other hand, are able to work with families and the kids’ peers.”
Community programs provide services like counseling, GED training, workforce development, rehabilitation, family engagement and anger management.
Doubt from county officials
Masterson said the bill has “good core reforms” that help higher risk youth.
But he is worried the bill is taking away group homes in one fell swoop. Sedgwick County operated a youth residential facility, Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, before closing it in 2014. The county is still served by several facilities, such the Lakeside Academy in Goddard.
“There needs to be funding…to put the community-based services into place and to see that they’re working before taking away the whole group home structure,” Masterson said. “We need to get the community services in place first and then evaluate ‘do you take away the whole layer of out-of-home placements or just part of it?’”
District Attorney Marc Bennett also questions how the programs would be paid for.
“It becomes circular reasoning here. We’re going to fund the alternatives with the money we’re going to save by having the alternatives,” Bennett said. “This needs a graduated roll-out, a step-by-step roll-out. Get some of the alternatives in place first and then find a funding source for those long-term.”
Bennett added the oversight committee should based in each judicial district, not at the state level.
We need to get the community services in place first and then evaluate ‘do you take away the whole layer of out-of-home placements or just part of it?’
Sedgwick County Corrections Director Mark Masterson
Both Bennett and Masterson said any reform needs to take into account differences in urban and rural communities.
“Sedgwick County is the biggest contributor to the juvenile justice system,” Masterson said. “We need programs that are very different in amount and duration than they have in rural areas.”