Kansas Juvenile Justice Overhaul Long Overdue

Co-authored with Jean Trounstine

After nine months of individual and committee work, the Kansas Senate has approved several long-overdue recommendations to overhaul the current juvenile justice system to reduce recidivism as well as unnecessary costs on governments.

A working group of Kansas governors recommended sweeping changes to the state system in an overwhelming 38-2 vote on Feb. 23, saying community-based programs, including counseling and therapy, will be emphasized over incarceration. Last Thursday, the state senate passed a bill approving the overhaul, and it's now up to Gov. Sam Brownback to give the final stamp of approval.

The goal of Senate Bill 367 is to keep youth with their families and in their communities, reducing the rates of juveniles incarcerated in detention centers and other out-of-home placements, in a state with one of the highest rates of these types of sentences. Out-of-home placements can cost $90,000 a year per youth, which is much higher than the cost of probation or community programs.

The Center for Children's Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C., non-profit, says that "detention profoundly and negatively impacts young people's mental and physical well-being, their education and their employment." It can also underscore mental illness," and make suicide more likely for incarcerated teens. Often detention worsens behavior, the centre says. And it is substantially worse for kids of color.

According to the Topeka-Capitol Journal, the bill will see group homes closed by July 2018, and reduce the out-of-home population by 60% in five years, reducing costs by an estimated $75 million in that time. Along with $2 million in seed money for the community programs, which will also include family therapy and anger management, this saving will be reinvested in treatment and the community. The bill will also standardize sentencing, and require training for juvenile justice professionals.

These findings and recommendations are further proof that community investment and education work, and are the best way to reduce crime and return to prison. The reality is that educational and skills development opportunities are wanted and needed: according to the Kansas Department of Corrections, in 2012 there were 499 students enrolled in high school, 37% of whom had an identified disability, with more than 70 students earning some type of diploma. Eighty-nine students participated in work study programs; 207 participated in career and technical programs. Access to vocational training was also expanded.

These youth want to, and can, change and learn.

These changes are long overdue, and highlight some of the difficulties that many juveniles have faced, as well as the huge costs of the current systems. In Kansas, those tried as juveniles range in age from 10- 17, and can remain in the juvenile system until 22. This is a huge age range, and is a crucially important time to focus on family, community, and education. Fourteen states have no minimum age to be tried as an adult.

In 2010, on any given day, some 70, 000 juvenile offenders were in residential placement, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While the population has declined, the profile has remained similar. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), 83% of these youth are confined by more than three locks through the day (i.e. locked within buildings, within areas of buildings and/or within external walls or fences).

CFYJ reports that two-thirds are held for non-violent crimes, including status offenses like breaking curfew or running away; 25% of detention facilities are at or over capacity; more than one in 10 youth experience sexual victimization.

This shift toward community programs, counseling, therapy, and keeping families together is a step in the right direction that will help reduce crimes and recidivism, and reduce the likelihood of incarceration later in life. It will also ensure that those youth who are incarcerated have the best chance at improving themselves by receiving an education, gaining the knowledge, skills, and qualifications needed to become contributing, productive, healthy members of society once they are released.

Without the chance to receive education, skills development, and counseling and therapy -- what these days, is a multi-system approach -- these youth are at a significant disadvantage, and prone to recidivism. The justice system, and therefore, policymakers, need to focus on the root causes of incarceration, and on rehabilitation, not just punishment en masse, recognizing that youth can change and learn. It is also communities, families, and individuals, advocating for education and rehabilitation that can keep kids out of prison. Kansas is taking steps in the right direction.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Jean Trounstine's 6th book, Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner's Fight for Justice will be published by IG Publishing, April 12, 2016. Follow her @justicewithjean and at www.jeantrounstine.com

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