In 2015, Gov. Sam Brownback, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and a bipartisan group of legislative leaders established a workgroup to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s juvenile justice system. The group’s recommendations led to the passage of Senate Bill 367 — sweeping reform legislation designed to reduce recidivism, keep low-level juvenile offenders out of the justice system for inordinate periods of time, focus on high-risk offenders, devote resources to community-based supervision and rehabilitation, and save the state tens of millions of dollars.
SB 367 was supported by a vast coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers — it passed 118-5 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate. One of the main reasons for this broad support was the alarming report issued by the workgroup in November 2015. It found that the reduction in the number of juvenile offenders who were placed out of home between 2004 and 2013 (24 percent) hadn’t kept up with the decline in juvenile arrests (52 percent). While other states have brought these proportions into alignment, Kansas has been keeping juvenile offenders “away from home longer than it did a decade ago,” which can have an adverse effect on rehabilitation.
Moreover, the “vast majority” of juveniles who had been placed out of home were “not chronic offenders adjudicated for serious offenses.” These placements comprised more than two-thirds of KDOC’s juvenile services budget ($53 million) and they can cost the state “as much as $89,000 per year per youth.” This is 10 times more costly than probation. The report also found that “alternatives to residential placement” weren’t monitored by the state for effectiveness, decisions about placement weren’t sufficiently standardized and there wasn’t enough data to determine how the system could function more efficiently.
According to the report, the implementation of SB 367 is “expected to reduce the state’s out-of-home population 62 percent from projected levels in 2021.” The Pew Charitable Trusts — which provided the workgroup with technical assistance — says the legislation will also produce $72 million to spend on rehabilitation services between 2018 and 2022. In a June 20 article, the director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, Jake Horowitz, pointed out a few encouraging signs that SB 367 is having its intended effect.
Between July 2016 and March 2017, the number of juveniles in Kansas correctional facilities fell by 28 percent, while the group home population declined by 43 percent. In March, the state closed one of its two juvenile correctional facilities, which only had 11 occupants at the end of last year. These reductions have already saved Kansas $8.4 million, $5 million of which is “being reinvested in new grant opportunities to enhance community-based services.”
Kansas school districts and law enforcement personnel are also trying to interdict what has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” A memorandum of understanding that went into effect on July 1 ensures that there’s a stark line between disciplinary measures taken by school officials and the role of law enforcement officers on school property. Ron Brown is the chief of security for USD 501, and he says arrests for crimes like disorderly conduct are already falling “dramatically.” This is a trend that the MOU is designed to perpetuate by prioritizing less severe punishments while maintaining officers’ discretion in any given circumstance.
Michael Kaye is a retired Washburn University law professor who helped develop the MOU, and he perfectly summarizes the need for these measures: “You can’t use the adult model of criminal justice. You’ve got to use a criminal justice system that recognizes kids.”
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