Kansas is making progress on juvenile justice. A new report from an oversight panel shows fewer children are ending up in the correctional system overall and fewer for minor offenses.

These are positive steps, but programs need further evaluation to determine if young people, particularly those with mental health concerns, are getting the support they need.

Three years ago, a juvenile justice reform bill passed with lofty goals. The law aimed to significantly reduce the number of youths sent to out-of-home placements, including correctional facilities, foster care, group homes, psychiatric residential treatment facilities and others. A 2015 analysis from the Kansas Department of Corrections showed only half of youths sent to such facilities successfully completed programs.

The reforms required more steps before juveniles could be sent to correctional institutions for minor offenses, like truancy, and aimed to reinvest cost savings into community-based programs to support families.

Initial evidence shows the reforms are working, at least in some areas. The report from the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee shows the number of youths in the Juvenile Correctional Facility has dropped 24% to 179 in the past four years. The average length of time juveniles are under probation has also decreased. There were 34 low-level offenders in the facility in 2015, now there are none, a particularly laudable statistic.

However, the overall picture of youths well-being in the state points to the complexity of juvenile justice reform. More children are in foster care than there were in 2015, according to data from the state of Kansas. The rate of Kansas children entering foster care is also higher than the national average, according to federal data released in 2018.

It seems at-risk Kansas youths are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system but more likely to enter foster care than they were three years ago.

Ideally, the foster care system can provide better outcomes for troubled young people, but resources are stretched in that system, particularly for youths with mental health issues. Some children need out-of-home placements to receive the kind of care they require, and some of those children are falling into a service gap. The number of psychiatric residential treatment facilities has shrunk in the state of Kansas, and the amount of time youths are able to stay in such facilities has decreased.

Foster care placements are also challenging for such children, leading to the unacceptable practice of foster children sleeping in contractor offices in recent years.

Most children with mental health issues will not become juvenile offenders, but there is significant overlap between these populations. Any serious efforts to support children at-risk of ending up in the criminal justice system must address mental health and ensure community-based and residential services are available to children in need.

The reduction in the number of children in correctional institutions is promising, but more work must be done.