A series of reports have caught the attention of the Kansas Legislature and several grassroots community groups. the reports have deemed the Kansas’ Juvenile Justice System broken. Now groups are working to figure out just how to fix it.

How broke is the system? Well it’s hard to find anything positive in the evaluation by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments released earlier this year. Combine that with a ranking as the 8th worst system for confinement of youth in the county and you begin to see why the issue of reforming the state’s Juvenile Justice System will draw a lot of attention during the 2016 Legislative session.

What’s wrong with the system? A lot, according to the spring study, as well as a study released last month. The November report was complied by a Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup composed of about a dozen individuals involved in the juvenile system at all levels, including the courts, social workers, law enforcement and corrections. That group’s finding piggy-backs on the spring study, but the group went further and proposed 40 policy reforms. This report could serve as a blueprint for change, but only if individuals involved in the system are ready for change.

Back to what’s wrong with Kansas’ Juvenile Justice System. Here are just a few of the issues identified in the reports:

The state sends too many youth to prison. Kansas youth incarceration is higher than most other states even though the youth crime rate in Kansas is actually lower than the national average and has fallen more than 50% in the past ten years.

The system targets the wrong youth. Eighty percent of youth sent to juvenile justice placements in Kansas are only low or moderate risk. However, many in-depth studies have shown incarceration and out-of-home placements of low-or-moderate-risk youth actually increase the risk that youth will commit an offense in the future.

Although Kansas never sentences adults to prison for low level misdemeanor convictions, 35% of Kansas youth released from prison in the previous year had been convicted of misdemeanors only. 

The system has limited alternatives to detention. Because of this, the state is forced to mix low-level risk youth with more serious offenders in detention facilities. 

The systems does little to identify and tailor the supervision and treatment of youth based on their risk levels. Data indicated that youth placed out-of-home, on Case Management received nearly identical services to those youth who remained at home on community supervision. This held true across all characteristics such as offense type and prior history. 

The system lacks consistent standards. Decision son how to handle youth are made with few if any guiding standards. Supervision levels, service referrals, and sanctions and incentives are not guided by any objective structured assessment and decision making tools. Because of this you see inconsistencies in treatment of youth across the state– or justice by geography. That lack of consistent standards also results in a disproportionately large number of youth of color at all steps in the juvenile justice process.

The system is inefficient. Each year, Kansas spends over $53 million to incarcerate kids or send them to out-of-home placement. Extensive national research shows prisons and out-of-home placement are in face the most expensive and least effect ways to respond to offenses committed by children. 

It cost the state $89,000 per year to house a youth in a juvenile justice facility. The workgroup found that evidence-based community programs cost significantly less than out of home placement. However, with the state spending two-thirds of its budget on out-of-home placement, there isn’t much left for community-based programs.

So how do you fix this broken system? There are a lot of recommendations floating around, but there’s still a lot of discussion needed. Here are some generic themes coming form several groups.

  • Work to reduce juvenile involvement in the system by addressing the needs of lower risk youth with targeted services and “swift and appropriate sanctions.”
  • Protect public safety and contain costs by focusing juvenile correction facility resource on the highest-risk youth. 
  • Invest more money in programs that have proven they work.
  • Start by screening and assessing youth to understand their risk level and the services that they need, versus the one shoe fits all approach.
  • Use diversion more, particularly with first and second low-level offenders. 
  • Establish a criteria for issuing a notice to appear where law enforcement officers write a Notice to Appear Citation rather than bringing the youth directly to the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Services. Youth would be required to contact intake within a certain period of time with their parent or guardian. Failure to appear would result in a referral to the county or district attorney. 

Ready for Change?

Sedgwick County’s approach to youth wrongdoing is changing to become more consistent with community values and evidence-based practices. Come talk through how the county should engage our youth when they do something wrong.

Tues., Jan. 12, 5:30-7:30PM. 

WSU Metroplex, 29th and Oliver

Refreshments will be served. Everyone is welcome, all ages, views, and voice. 

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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