OLATHE — Gov. Sam Brownback signed an overhaul of Kansas’ juvenile justice system into law Monday, placing in motion changes supporters hope will provide better, more targeted intervention for troubled youth.
Lawmakers hailed Senate Bill 367 as the premiere accomplishment of the legislative session. The legislation garnered the support of nearly all legislators — a rare achievement for a measure of such sweeping scope.
Kansas will spend less on low-risk juvenile offenders and more on high-risk offenders under the new law. Children will be less likely to go to jail for probation violations.
The measure aims to reduce out-of-home placement for troubled youth. Offenders will be more often directed to community-based programs while continuing to live at home.
Brownback signed the bill outside the Johnson County Courthouse, telling a crowd of reform proponents the juvenile justice system now will be more focused on better outcomes for youth while remaining cost effective.
“Senate Bill 367 offers practical, sensible reform. This bill is about being smart on crime,” Brownback said. “It’s about making sure our communities are safe while juveniles are held accountable for their actions. It’s about reducing recidivism and preventing citizens from becoming victims of future crimes.”
The legislation stems from the work of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup, which met throughout 2015. The group’s report formed the foundation for Senate Bill 367, which passed the House 118-5 and the Senate 40-0.
The group found that as crime falls, the juvenile justice system isn’t keeping pace. The juvenile arrest rate has fallen more than 50 percent between 2004 and 2013, according to the workgroup, but the number of juveniles in community supervision and residential commitments hasn’t fallen at the same rate.
The group also found lower-level offenders make up a greater share of the out-of-home population, which is composed of offenders who are living in facilities rather than at home. The report said the proportion of youths placed outside of home for misdemeanors had grown during the past decade and accounted for approximately two-thirds of youths placed on case management supervision.
“The workgroup worked long and hard,” said Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, “based strictly on hard facts, hard data, empirical evidence to come up with a report and recommendations for the Legislature that resulted in the legislation the governor (signed).”
In a mark of the bill’s widespread legislative support, the signing ceremony brought Rubin and House Speaker Ray Merrick together by Brownback’s side.
Earlier this year, Merrick fired Rubin as chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee after a parliamentary dispute on the House floor.
Although the package passed the Legislature nearly unanimously, prosecutors have continued to voice concerns. The Kansas County and District Attorneys Association said after the bill signing that aspects of the new law undermine the discretion of courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public.
Funding needed to support the expansive agenda of the legislation hasn’t yet been fully identified, the association said. And it noted the working group had only one prosecutor member and failed to consider how the impact of the bill will differ between large and small jurisdictions.
“A bill this expansive, and potentially impactful deserved more input from those ultimately responsible for its successful implementation,” the association said in a statement.
“That said, the KCDAA will remain vigilant and actively engaged in the process necessary to ensure this bill achieves its stated goals; is adequately funded; and ultimately enhances, not diminishes the public safety of our fellow Kansans.”
Wichita Democratic Rep. Jim Ward, one of only five lawmakers to vote against the bill, echoed prosecutor concerns about funding.
“My fear is, particularly with this governor and this group of people in power, they won’t fund the programs necessary to protect the community from kids that don’t go into detention,” Ward said.
The Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee chairman, Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, rebuffed the criticism from the prosecutors. They will have to do things they have never done before, he said.
Smith said prosecutors will be held to greater account for what happens to children in the system.
“I think prosecutors are concerned because it takes them out of their comfort zones,” Smith said. “It’s not because the programs don’t work; it’s because they don’t want to change.”