Summer is a season for families, a time to strengthen bonds and make memories. As we enjoy summer with our loved ones, we’re grateful that a new law is helping Kansas families enjoy the human connections that enrich our lives.
Senate Bill 367, signed into law in 2016, launched an overhaul of our state’s juvenile justice system. The bill earned overwhelming support in both the House and Senate.
Such bipartisan support was heralded as a noteworthy feat in a tumultuous political environment, but what’s truly worth celebrating are the promise and early benefits of this landmark bill.
First, a bit of context. Until policymakers united behind these reforms, Kansas relied on a costly and ineffective model of juvenile justice. Although youth arrests had dropped steadily for more than a decade, the proportion of youths sent to correctional facilities and other out-of-home placements failed to keep pace with this decline.
The vast majority of kids taken away from their families were lower level offenders with limited criminal histories. That didn’t make sense, and it was expensive. It cost the state as much as $89,000 per year per youth — 10 times the cost of probation.
All of that was enough to warrant our attention, but perhaps more disturbing, research showed that removing low-level youth from their homes was often counter-productive. For these kids, lengthy placements in residential facilities are not only less effective in reducing recidivism than many alternative sanctions, but can even increase the likelihood they’ll commit future crimes.
Fortunately, a bipartisan task force known as the Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup took a hard look at our system and came up with a blueprint for a more effective approach. The Workgroup analyzed data, gathered input from stakeholders, reviewed research, and examined effective policies and practices in other states. This effort resulted in 40 recommendations designed to ensure Kansas uses proven strategies to both hold youth accountable and improve the odds they will move forward with productive, law-abiding lives.
These recommendations laid the foundation for SB 367. While the law triggered changes across the system, its key goal was prioritizing residential beds for youth who pose the greatest public safety risk while ensuring that youth who can remain in their homes are safely and effectively held accountable.
Although it may take a few years for the full benefits to materialize, early signs of progress are encouraging. Kansas has already seen a steady decline in youth incarceration levels. Statewide, from July 2016 to March 2017, the population of youth in detention fell more than 25 percent — from 123 to 89 — and the group home population dropped more than 40 percent — from 145 to 83.
These declines allowed the state to shift $8.4 million toward evidence-based programs like family therapy and aggression replacement training. Before the Legislature adjourned this year, we ensured $5 million of those savings goes directly to our counties to expand services and help more youth get the treatment they need. Families in all 105 counties have access to new services, and that will only continue to grow.
To smooth transitions for staff, SB 367 authorized intensive training on effective interventions for youth and the use of critical decision-making tools. That training is well underway, ensuring front-line professionals are well-equipped for new policies and practices.
Finally, I am happy to report that the Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee is up and running. This panel will guide the law’s implementation and measure outcomes to make sure we stay on track.
As we add up all the little ways our juvenile justice system is changing for the better, it’s important to remember what really motivated us to support reform — the desire to create brighter futures for Kansas’ most troubled youth.
We hope this summer serves up an abundance of meaningful moments for them.
Blaine Finch is a Kansas House member, representing Franklin County and the 59th District in the Kansas House.