Eagle editorial: Boys Ranch needs state help

Sedgwick County commissioners did the right thing last week in deciding to keep the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch open for another year. Now the state needs to step up and increase funding – though the prospects of that look dim.

County Manager William Buchanan had recommended closing the facility near Lake Afton as part of an effort to eliminate the county’s budget deficit. The ranch is a Juvenile Justice Authority program, but the state’s payment rate is so low that the county has had to spend about $1.5 million a year to subsidize the ranch.

Corrections officials and others convinced commissioners that closing the ranch was a bad idea. They noted how effective the program is and how it reduces crime and lowers jail costs. Delores Craig-Moreland, a Wichita State University criminal justice professor, estimated that the ranch programs result in 390 fewer criminals to house in the county jail over a 10-year period.

Still, there is a limit to how much the county can spend on a state responsibility. And though the county is reducing the bed capacity at the ranch and moving to 12-hour shifts for staff to reduce costs, it needs the state to increase its reimbursement rate, which hasn’t changed since 2007 and is based on 2006 actual costs.

But the large tax cuts that the Legislature approved last session mean that the state will have its own budget problems. State Budget Director Steve Anderson has directed agencies to draft proposals to cut spending by 10 percent next fiscal year.

And a sudden rush of economic growth is unlikely. Celebrity economist Arthur Laffer, who is a paid consultant of the Brownback administration, said last week that the state’s tax cuts will “make a big difference in a decade.”

The ranch can’t wait that long.

Another big challenge is that about a third of the Legislature will be new next year, and many of those members were elected promising to cut spending. Also, one of the most vocal supporters of the ranch, Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, was defeated in the primary.

It’s also unclear how much officials in Topeka care. Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, asked a representative of the JJA last week how the agency prioritizes its spending, noting how it was planning to make improvements to a Topeka facility that serves the same purpose as the Boys Ranch. The person didn’t have an answer.

“Here we are, the largest city in the state, and we’re not even on the radar,” McGinn said. “Where is the ranch on the radar?”

The local delegation needs to make sure the ranch is on the state’s radar and that it is funded properly.

Kelsey said that society faces a critical question regarding its troubled youth: “Do we lock them up in detention centers and then adult prisons, or do we help them turn their lives around?”

The County Commission made the right decision. Will the state?

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee