Sweeping changes in the state’s juvenile justice system that place greater emphasis on counseling over incarceration gained approval in the Kansas Senate on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 367, which passed 38-2, would end state use of youth residential centers or group homes for juvenile offenders in July 2018. It would create a team that would review cases with families and educators.
Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, told senators that after studying the problems with the juvenile system along with a bipartisan group, it became clear it wasn’t working for youth, families or public safety.
“In short, we’re warehousing kids instead of working to find solutions,” he said.
The bill will shift funding from youth residential centers to community-based programs that supporters say are more effective than incarceration.
Smith highlighted family therapy and anger management programs as more therapeutic alternatives that research has shown to be more effective than incarceration.
“Keep the kid in their own community with their own family if at all possible, so they still have their friends, still have their school … and then they’re not going to reoffend,” said Smith, who has previously worked as a police officer and now works as a teacher.
Research shows that kids are more likely to reoffend and less likely to graduate if they’ve been incarcerated, said Smith, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan working group.
The 112-page overhaul has been in the works nine months, Smith said, and provides evidence-based solutions to the problems with the state’s system.
The working group studied the state’s juvenile justice system and found that Kansas had one of the highest rates of juvenile offenders placed in detention centers and other out-of-home placements. Such facilities can cost $90,000 a year for each offender, about 10 times the cost of probation.
“This is a program that will be sustainable,” Smith said. “It is not soft on crime. I have not been nor will ever be soft on crime.”
Sedgwick County operated a youth residential center, Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, until closing it in 2014. Some local officials have sought to reopen the facility since its closure. The county is still served by several other facilities.
Sedgwick County corrections director Mark Masterson said some communities with fewer resources could benefit from the Department of Corrections investing in services like anger management and counseling.
But he said the bill doesn’t address using juvenile detention for non-offenders, such as human trafficking victims and children in need of care. And he said the state’s July 2018 expiration date for its use of group homes “deserves serious attention.”
“A sunset on group homes will result in a lack of investment by people who operate those homes to make the type of improvements that are necessary,” he said.
Smith said the more than two years that the bill gives the Department of Corrections to make the changes is adequate time to get the new system in place.
The bill is expected to reduce the out-of-home population by about 62 percent in five years and reduce costs over that time by about $75 million. That money should be reinvested in community programs and treatment, said Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican who co-chaired the study group with Smith.
The bill now heads to the Kansas House.
Contributing: Daniel Salazar of The Eagle