The number of juvenile arrests and placement of youth in group homes or detention facilities declined at the same time Kansas moved to funnel budget savings into community-based therapy and intervention programs designed to keep families together, a new study said Thursday.

The total number of juvenile arrests in Kansas declined 29 percent between 2015 to 2017, according to the assessment by Pew Charitable Trusts. The out-of-home population of juveniles placed in secure correctional facilities, group homes or other detention units fell 63 percent in Kansas from 2015 to 2018, Pew researchers said.

Dana Shoenberg, senior manager of juvenile justice research and policy at Pew Charitable Trusts, said reform in Kansas offered insight into how states could shrink the footprint of a juvenile justice system, contain government costs and get a better return on investment in at-risk youth.

"Kansas’ work to reform its juvenile justice system is an example of how states can better serve youth, families and communities by using data and stakeholder input to align policies and resource allocation with what research says works," Shoenberg said.

The decline in youth confinement in Kansas was attributed in the report primarily to closure of a correctional facility and reduced reliance on group homes to hold juveniles with lower-level offense and risk profiles. Here are the annual declines in out-of-home placements of juveniles in Kansas by year: 878 in 2015, 734 in 2016, 482 in 2017 and 321 in 2018.

A comprehensive reform bill passed by the 2016 Legislature and signed into law at that time by Gov. Sam Brownback created the prospect of redirecting into prevention programs an estimated $30 million that had been spent on incarcerating youth. Despite change in Kansas documented by Pew, much of the state funding shift has yet to be completed.

"There have been some hiccups," said Gov. Laura Kelly, who embraced bulk of juvenile justice reform legislation adopted while she served in the Kansas Senate. "Right now, quite honestly, a lot of it is sitting in accounts."

She said the state would benefit from a systematic approach to investment of budget savings in effective juvenile programs.

Greg Smith, chairman of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee within the state Department of Corrections, said the 2018 Legislature adopted a budget provision that withdrew $6 million from the juvenile justice reinvestment fund. The money was transferred into the budget of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"The problem is now we're having to defend people wanting to take that money, because they're saying, 'You're not spending it,'" he said.

Smith asked the 2019 Legislature to restore the $6 million to the juvenile justice initiative. It appears likely the new state budget nearing completion at the Capitol will reverse last year's appropriation, he said.

"A primary feature of Kansas' juvenile justice reform is its 100 percent reinvestment mechanism," Smith said. "Every dollar saved by Kansas fro reduced youth incarceration is to be placed into a reinvestment 'lockbox' that can only be spent on evidence-based community programs for juvenile offenders and their families." 

He said a subcommittee of the juvenile justice oversight panel was working to identify the best programs to pour the savings.

In the past, Kansas' district courts offered troubled juveniles few alternatives to incarceration. Lack of criteria to guide decisions led judges to respond differently to similar behavior across the state, meaning consequences were often dependent on where a young person lived.

Pew said 99 of 105 counties in Kansas were now operating immediate intervention programs capable of diverting youth from being formally charged in the juvenile justice system. According to 88 counties that reported data for 2018, 89 percent of youth successfully completed their programs.

In 2015, a study of state group homes by the Department of Corrections found fewer than half of those placed in the group homes completed their programs successfully. The issue of recidivism was a driver in terms of Kansas reforms based on research showing 42 percent of Kansas youth sent to a secure juvenile prison returned to the corrections department within three years.