By Alyssa Scott
KU Statehouse Wire Service
TOPEKA – During the past 15 years, there has been a positive shift in juvenile justice systems across the country, but Kansas is lagging slightly behind, according to data presented at a joint House and Senate Corrections Committees meeting Wednesday.
Nationally, states have reduced the population of youth in confinement by nearly 50 percent, while Kansas has reduced its rate by less than 40 percent.
Josh Weber, program director for juvenile justice at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in his report that Kansas does not have statewide criteria to help judges and court service officers determine the most appropriate level of supervision is for youth offenders, which might result in inefficient placement within those levels.
“Theoretically, those levels of supervision should match the youth’s risk of reoffending and the severity of their offenses,” Weber said. “There’s a real misalignment between the supervision levels available, the use of resources and trying to match those to a youth’s risk of reoffending.”
Approximately 75 percent of all youth assigned to secure facilities and case management placements are considered to be low-to-moderate risk offenders, meaning that it is unlikely for them to commit another offense in the future. Weber said research has shown that being placed in these secure facilities is detrimental to low-risk youth.
“Generally what research has shown is that residential placement, particularly very restrictive residential placement, can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism for lower risk youth,” Weber said. “Those expensive placements, $90,000 per year in Kansas annually for a youth in a secure facility, really should be reserved for the highest risk youth.”
Weber said his overall goal is to work with the Kansas Department of Corrections to reduce the state’s levels of youth recidivism – the rate an offender will be a repeat offender. While these levels are comparable to other states, Weber said they are higher than they should be. Thirty percent of youth placed on case management are re-incarcerated in juvenile or adult systems within a three-year period, and this increases to 42 percent for youth who are placed in secure juvenile correctional facilities.
In addition to a lack of guidelines for judges and court officers, there is a lack of communication between authorities and the KDOC, resulting in an inability to manage statistics about youth offenders. Rep. Blaine Finch (R-Ottawa) voiced his concern about the failure to collect data across the juvenile justice system.
“Service providers and KDOC staff who work further down the stream don’t know what happened at the front end of the system, so they may be providing services for youth and interventions that have been already tried and failed, and so there’s not a really streamlined efficient use of services and resources,” Weber said.
Rep. John Rubin (R-Shawnee), chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee said based on the presentation and comments from KDOC, change is necessary to facilitate improvement in the system.
“This presentation has given us a lot to ponder, Rubin said. “I would say, certainly not for the Department of Corrections, who I know you’ve been working with and is well aware, but for us on the legislature, I dare say this is somewhat of a wake up call for us.”
Robin Olsen, manager at Pew Charitable Trusts, said data has shown that voters across all political parties and various demographics support a change to the juvenile justice system.
“Eighty-five percent of voters agreed with the statement, ‘It does not matter whether a juvenile offender is sent to a corrections facility or supervised in the community. What really matters is that the system is doing a better job of making sure they’re less likely to commit another crime,’” Olsen said.
Alyssa Scott is a University of Kansas junior from Wichita majoring in journalism and French.