Report Outlines Flaws in Kansas’ Juvenile Justice System

Topeka Capital-Journal

By Tim Carpenter

The juvenile justice system in Kansas functions inadequately due to a tangled organizational structure, inappropriate assignment of youths to detention facilities, poor use of mental health and substance abuse evaluations and over reliance on lengthy periods of incarceration, a consultant’s report said Wednesday.

The analysis indicated Kansas operated without statewide guidelines for determining the appropriate level of supervision for juvenile offenders by local and state agencies. The Kansas Department of Corrections and local authorities aren’t linked by computer to coherently manage youths and the collection of statistical information on offenders falls short.

In addition, the report said the state’s allocation of block grants to local providers was based on the number of people served rather than performance outcomes. The $16 million spent annually on private residential placement doesn’t guarantee effective treatment, the report said.

The evaluation by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments indicated these and other factors contributed to a youth recidivism rate in Kansas higher than the national average.

“Recidivism rates are higher than we’d like to see,” said Josh Weber, a program director with the organization’s Justice Center “It’s not a good use of resources.”

He told House and Senate corrections committee members introduction of data-driven policies and practices in Kansas could better serve youths and allow for reinvestment of money in community-based programs.

“You’ve given us a lot to ponder,” said Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “I dare say this is somewhat of a wake-up call for us.”

He said the report could be the foundation of a comprehensive reform bill considered during the 2016 legislative session.

Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, said the state would have benefit of research on recidivism that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Jennings, who led the state’s juvenile justice authority from 2007 to 2011, said the report captured many of the challenges facing the system in Kansas and other states.

Sen. Greg Smith, of Overland Park, the Republican chairman of the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, took particular interest in a finding that public school districts located near juvenile facilities resisted enrollment of offenders.

These individuals are disproportionately suspended or expelled, have fallen behind in academic work and rarely stay at the school more than a few months, Weber said.

The reviewers recommended Kansas adopt clear regulations for matching youths with the appropriate level of supervision, alter block granting to mandate private contractors deliver quality programs and vastly expand data collection and analysis.

Terri Williams, deputy secretary for juvenile services at the state Department of Corrections, said the agency welcomed the expertise of the Council of State Governments. The organization delved into Kansas’ programs as part of a multi-state reform initiative.

“We are supportive of their recommendations,” she said. “We’re committed to being data-driven.”

Robin Olsen, a manager with Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety project, told the joint committee both the juvenile violent crime rate and the number of youths sent to state-funded facilities was declining nationally. Kansas is making progress, but at a slower pace.

She said the national out-of-home commitment rate declined 48 percent between 1997 and 2011. The decline in Kansas during that period was 38 percent, leaving the state with the 15th highest commitment in the country.

“Residential placements not only cost more than alternatives,” Olsen said, “they can actually increase offending for certain youth.”