Five years after Kansas juvenile justice reforms, what has changed and what still needs to be fixed?

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Some are calling for the closure of the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex at 1430 N.W. 25th in Topeka.

Five years after juvenile justice reforms passed in Kansas, advocates are calling for further steps to meet the goals of the bipartisan legislation.

The 44-page report detailing the effects of Senate Bill 367 from the 2016 legislative session was released last week by Progeny, a Wichita-based organization focused on juvenile justice reform. The group plans to release a second report this week outlining calls for further action, including closure of the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka.

"When SB 367 passed, it brought hope to communities across Kansas in making a commitment to shift from the harmful, traumatic practice of incarcerating youth to actually investing in our young people, giving them the tools and resources they need to thrive," Progeny campaign manager Nichole Lee said in a statement.

"Youth incarceration continues to devastate families, disproportionately in Black and brown communities, taking young people away from their loved ones and support systems and placing them in inhumane conditions. While Kansas has taken some critical steps, we must take the actions outlined in the report if we are to give our young people the future they deserve."

The bipartisan SB 367 was also known as the Kansas Juvenile Justice Reform Act.

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'Mixed views on the rollout'

Some of the key provisions in the law included preventing the use of group homes in most cases, establishing limits on case lengths, limiting probation lengths and changing rules to make it less likely that youth are detained or committed to correctional facilities. Lawmakers also allocated funding to juvenile justice reform.

The report states that stakeholders "overwhelmingly praised" the bill, but interviewees now have "mixed views on the rollout."

One person said it was difficult to get "old system" staffers on board with the reforms.

"What we were doing was wrong," said the person, who wasn't identified in the report. "People don’t want to hear that. People have devoted their lives to this, they don’t want to hear it was wrong."

The report noted three statistics as "great progress" between fiscal years 2015 and 2020. The annual average number of youth entering the justice system fell about 24%, the average annual number of youth in custody fell about 88% and youth prison incarcerations dropped 37%.

However, the report also noted failure and "an eroding of support" around funding and racial and ethnic equality. Last session, lawmakers and the governor moved $21 million from juvenile justice funds to the state's general fund.

"The report shows how relevant and needed investments in community-based programs can be in Kansas, and the last thing we need to do is cut these funds," said Kristen Powell, of The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, in Progeny's news release. "As someone who has experienced the trauma of youth incarceration firsthand and is now in the fight to end it, I know how desperately needed these investments are."

Black youths incarcerated five times rate of white youths

In 2019, Black youths were incarcerated at five times the rates of white youths in Kansas, which was worse than the national racial disparity. The disparity has been decreasing over recent years. The state's Hispanic youths were incarcerated at 1.4 times the rate of white youths, which was an increase in disparity over the last five years.

The closure of a juvenile prison was perceived as a major win, though the group is campaigning for the closure of the last juvenile correctional facility in Topeka.

"Incarcerating youth does not address what led to them being incarcerated, it just holds them in a place and does not address their trauma, then pushes them back into the community without changing anything," the report states.

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The report's authors argue that alternative, preventive and supportive services are a better investment for taxpayers, considering that youth incarceration costs an estimated $134,000 per child per year imprisoned.

Tracey C. Mason Sr., of CHD Boxing Club in Wichita, said in a Progeny news release that community organizations would benefit from reinvested funds.

"Programs like ours provide young people necessary support, allowing us to build stronger communities and move away from placing youth behind bars," he said. "It is our hope that this report helps show our lawmakers how needed these funds and reforms are."