Kansas juvenile justice reform effort left major flaws in system, officials say
Legislators hear call for more resources and programs to help juvenile offenders
Rep. Stephen Owens says new legislation is geared toward fixing gaps in the state’s juvenile justice system. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Stabbings, 16-year-olds with guns and violent attacks: Officials working with young offenders in Kansas say they need lawmakers to step up and fix flaws within the state’s juvenile justice system.
The debate centered on Senate Bill 367, which was implemented in 2016. The bill was passed with the intention of reducing youth incarceration rates and reforming the juvenile justice system in the state. The legislation shifted practices away from holding youths in group homes or state custody, instead funneling money into community programs and treatment. The legislation included limits on probation and case lengths, making it less common for youths to be detained or sent to correctional facilities.
While juvenile incarceration rates and youth arrest rates have decreased in the six years since the legislation was implemented, activists and officials working in the system say urgent changes are needed.
“We’ve had kids that are out of control,” said Rice County Attorney Remington Dalke, testifying Wednesday to lawmakers during a joint hearing of House committees dealing with juvenile justice and foster care.
Dalke said Rice County doesn’t have enough community supervision or treatment plans for juvenile offenders, so young offenders are placed on probation instead, spending about an hour a week doing self-probation on Zoom. With little accountability, Dalke said, cases of youth-committed violence are on the rise. He mentioned a case in which a girl shot her friend in the leg.
“The end result is I’ve got kids who are caught vaping getting the exact same treatment as a kid who at the age of 16 showed up drunk at the pool, threw a beer can at a girl, threatened to kill her, and was taken by law enforcement home to his parents,” Dalke said.
Christina Smith, a single mother living in Sedgwick County, said the legislation ruined her life.
Smith said her 15-year-old son, who has a history of violence, needed more intervention than he got after threatening to kill her. Smith said he had attacked her when she was on crutches following ACL surgery, and shoved her against a wall, saying he would kill her if she sent him back for psychiatric treatment.
Smith said she tried different methods, including therapy and psychiatric hospitalization, but he needed more intervention.
“These years have been a path of terror,” Smith said. “Bill 367 allows grace for juveniles that made mistakes, but the law has put me in danger more times than I can count. This last year my oldest son was empowered by the lack of consequences for his ever-increasingly violent behavior due to this leniency.”
Smith said he was charged with at least four battery charges in the last year but had the charges dropped, which she believed was because of SB 367. When she refused to pick him up after his release from a mental health hospital, she was charged with child abandonment and he was placed in foster care.
“My family’s life was filled with insults, putdowns, foul language and threats to be harmed or killed,” Smith said. “Bill 367 ensures that juveniles, unless they are involved in violent crime, are never actually charged and never convicted. No real consequences happen. The situation escalates until the system has no other options.”
Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas, an organization that provides foster care and family reunification services, said foster care providers were now shouldering the burden of juvenile delinquency.
“We have just shifted the problem from one location to another,” Bass said. “Children in foster care who have juvenile offending behaviors are growing up in congregate care and child welfare.”
Bass said out of the 1,400 kids in her organization’s care, about 14% are juvenile offenders.
She said in one case, a 15-year-old who entered the foster care system as a registered sex offender couldn’t live with anyone under the age of 16 because of a court order. That made it difficult to find an appropriate place for him, Bass said.
He is currently on his 20th home placement, never completed the sexual offender treatment he was supposed to complete, and will turn 18 this year.
“He’s going to exit the foster care system, and we have completely failed him,” Bass said. “I would have rather seen him stay in detention and at least he would have received consistent services because he would’ve been in one location for an extended period of time.”
Other officials working with juvenile offenders have said the structure of the legislation was a well-intentioned start to making long-lasting juvenile justice reforms, but more needs to be done to ensure juvenile offenders have proper help and oversight.
Suggestions offered during the Wednesday meeting included more crisis intervention centers for juvenile offenders, treatment through community mental health centers, and collaboration across systems. The state has millions set aside for juvenile crisis center funding, which is thought to be a potential solution to the current lack of resources for juvenile offenders, but hasn’t used any of the funding.
In 2018, Johnson County applied to create a center but the state government dropped the project. Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, said when she asked fellow lawmakers about the delay in the crisis center project, she was not given a good explanation about the lack of funding.
“Well, they just haven’t done it yet,” Neighbor said. “If that’s the excuse, that’s on us. And that is pitiful. Because we have kids out there that are suffering and parents that are paying. And they had six years to get that done. And I think they deserve an answer on why it hasn’t happened.”
Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, and Rep. Stephan Owens, R-Hesston, who co-chaired the meeting, said they were also frustrated by the lack of progress. Owens said they were planning to hear legislation that would address some of the flaws in the system on Jan. 30.
One piece of legislation, House Bill 2021, would extend case length limits for certain juvenile offenders, require the creation of juvenile justice data systems, encourage increased use of money for intervention programs, and allow detention for probation violations.
Another bill, House Bill 2033, would change the criteria for admitting young offenders to juvenile crisis intervention centers and better define standards for behavioral health crises.
Owens said the meeting provided a good opportunity to identify what was working and what wasn’t working with the system.
“I think this is a testament to the fact that the Legislature passes legislation with the best of intent, but isn’t always able to foresee the consequences,” Owens said.
Concannon said she understood the perspective of foster care providers and juvenile justice workers who testified at the meeting.
“They’ve been living with it for a few years, and there’s a lot of frustration,” Concannon said. “Their hands are tied. So this was an opportunity just to hear them and let these two committees hear this frustration come out. If the system is not working, it’s got a major gap. We’re not providing for the needs of those in-between youth.”
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