Eagle editorial: County’s alternative corrections, juvenile programs are worth fighting for

Confronted with state funding cuts and flat property-tax revenue, Sedgwick County might be tempted to retreat from its comprehensive approach to corrections and juvenile justice. To its credit, the county isn’t ready to do that, and even aims to open a long-sought jail pod for mentally ill inmates.

Just a month ago, it looked as if the $750,000 that the 2013 Legislature laudably appropriated for the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch might not be enough to offset other state corrections cuts and save the ranch. But under Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan’s recommended 2014 budget, the county anticipates keeping the Lake Afton ranch open through next June, and without what has been a $1.1 million annual county subsidy. That’s great news.

This hardly gets the ranch off the endangered list, or addresses its infrastructure needs. County officials and area lawmakers must lobby hard for state funding to cover the daily $201-per-boy cost of operating the ranch, which actually is a state program. The ranch is worth fighting for, because of its outstanding 52-year track record of guiding teenage boys to make better choices and find life success. Then there’s the research indicating that it results in 390 fewer adult criminals in jail over a decade.

Similar advocacy will be needed to sustain a juvenile-diversion program, which faces a $150,000 shortfall due to state cuts. Under the program, which the county would fund for one year, certain juveniles can avoid a criminal record by agreeing to pay restitution and fees, perform community service, and have counseling or treatment. Without such a program to deter recidivism, Buchanan told commissioners Wednesday, “the system will get clogged up later. There will be more juveniles in our juvenile-detention facilities, and more adults in our adult facilities.”

Buchanan also said that with the new mental-health pod, which would get $471,000 under his budget plan, officials expect the Sedgwick County Jail will see fewer inmates in restraints and fewer assaults. Most important, it will serve the diagnosis and treatment of such inmates, helping ready them for life after release.

The county’s budget won’t be final until the commission votes Aug. 7. But the proposal reflects the reality that intervention, prevention, diversion and other programs reduce recidivism, as they save taxpayers’ money. In Sedgwick County’s case, they have the added benefit of helping stave off another jail expansion.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman