Topeka Police Chief Bill Cochran is convinced dollars and personnel devoted to addressing mental health challenges of young Kansans pay huge dividends.

Anybody who doesn't believe early intervention can change the life trajectory of vulnerable youths only need to look at the bulging state prison system for evidence of what happens when behavioral problems fester, he said.

"We've got to understand young people grow up to be older people," Cochran said. "They bring that luggage with them. If we don't find a way to lighten that suitcase, then we have to deal with adults in a totally different level."

Cochran joined Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County's mental health center, and Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, for a discussion in Topeka about the intersection of behavioral health and criminal justice. It was sponsored by the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.

The discussion occurred as the 2020 Legislature dives into recommendations for reform of the state's justice system. In Kansas, more than 30% of incarcerated individuals have previously been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

DeWeese said the state of Kansas could push the envelope on collection of data on individuals interacting with law enforcement, mental health facilities, the schools and state agencies to determine which youths were the most at risk from exposure to trauma. It is the best way of targeting state and community resources at the greatest need, he said.

"That is where we can begin to curb the tide when we talk about prevention and looking at a multi-generational approach to providing health services," DeWeese said.

Howard said Gov. Laura Kelly recommended the Legislature allow merger of KDADS, DCF and juvenile justice programs at the Kansas Department of Corrections into a newly created Kansas Department of Human Services on July 1. The change is designed to reinforce the administration's commitment to children and families seeking access to critical services, she said.

"Really being able to amplify that focus on prevention across all those services," Howard said. "Enhancing service access and really having more seamless access for citizens. And then really forging stronger connections at the community level."

She also said the Kelly administration would seek to expand the number of crisis-intervention beds at Osawatomie State Hospital, where a moratorium had limited flow of people in crisis to state care.

"It's been a burden on systems across the state," she said. "It's past time for that to take place."

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, in remarks before the panel discussion, said crowding in the state's prison system had once again inspired consideration by legislators of criminal justice reform.

Policymakers in the past balked at the enormity of the task or the cost of transforming the system and settled for modest adjustments carefully designed to avoid appearing as if the state was simply letting people out of prison early, he said.

"This time what feels different to me is that there seems to me to be, sort of across the philosophical spectrum, a sense that we know there is not a cheap and easy way out of this," Schmidt said.

He said state investment in effective prevention strategies targeting mental health or substance abuse disorders could play a significant role in breaking cycles of criminal behavior.

"The vast majority of the people that we're talking about in our penal system are not there because they're evil. They're there because they did the wrong thing, often that hurt someone else, usually because it's either substance abuse driven or mental health driven," Schmidt said.