Opinion Columns & Blogs

Sen. Greg Smith: Juvenile justice reform relies on proven methods

With a career that includes two decades in law enforcement, I’ve never been labeled soft on crime. I’ve backed tough penalties for lawbreakers, and I always figured our approach to criminal justice was as good as it gets.

But last year I served as co-chairman of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup, and the experience changed my thinking about how to fight crime and help troubled youths turn around their lives. I’m now convinced we need a new approach, and I believe Senate Bill 367 shows us the way.

SB 367 embodies proposals produced by the work group, which was charged with recommending reforms to protect public safety, contain taxpayer costs and improve outcomes.

Beginning last June, our bipartisan panel conducted an exhaustive assessment of our juvenile justice system, reviewing data and research on what works to reduce juvenile offending while gathering input from law enforcement, crime victims, prosecutors and others.

Our Kansas findings were discouraging. Although crime has dropped, our system is funneling youths into more out-of-home placements and holding them there longer than it did a decade ago. And the vast majority of youths sent to state-funded residential facilities are lower-level offenders with limited criminal histories.

Costs are disturbingly high, with out-of-home placements running as much as $90,000 per year per youth – 10 times the cost of probation.

When I was appointed to the work group, I was not supportive of reform, given my law enforcement background and the murder of my daughter, Kelsey Smith. But as I pored over our state’s data and compared it with research about how to reduce reoffending and improve outcomes, my thinking changed.

Why? Because our current system is not aligned with the most effective strategies to keep youths from reoffending. SB 367 would modernize our approach to ensure it relies on proven, evidence-based methods. The bill prioritizes residential beds for youths who pose the greatest safety risk while ensuring that those who commit lower-level offenses are held accountable through effective programs in their communities.

Change is hard, and it’s much easier to stick to the status quo while spreading fear with falsehoods and doomsday predictions. I hope my colleagues will resist that temptation and support SB 367. Our children, and all Kansans, deserve no less.

Greg Smith of Overland Park is chairman of the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.