A Senate committee will consider a bill this week that recommends a dramatic cut in the number of Kansas youths locked up or placed in group homes in the state’s juvenile justice system.
Opponents of group homes say they do little to reduce recidivism and may encourage continued criminal behavior. Proponents, however, see a track record of helping troubled youths to turn their lives around.
Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, said representatives from throughout the system participated last year in the Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup with the Pew Charitable Trusts to evaluate the state’s handling of young offenders.
Rubin was one of four legislators in the workgroup, and its recommendations are now part of Senate Bill 367 that will be the focus of Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee hearings starting Monday.
The group’s report found that a lack of community services and risk assessments resulted in youths being placed in detention or group homes for relatively minor offenses, he said.
One of the more significant changes proposed in the report would be to eliminate placements at youth residential centers, more commonly known as group homes. The Kansas Department of Corrections contracts with 13 such facilities, which have a capacity of 326 beds, department spokesman Adam Pfannenstiel said. As of the end of 2015, he said, 244 youths were in group homes.
The report estimated the corrections department spends about $53 million annually on out-of-home placements, with an average annual cost of about $50,000 for placement in a group home and $89,000 in the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex.
A workgroup of representatives from law enforcement, courts, corrections and the Legislature met for several months and came up with 40 recommendations to improve juvenile justice in Kansas.
The group’s recommendations include:
- Setting strict time limits on incarceration in the Kansas Juvenile Corrections Complex.
- Giving police officers an option to issue a “notice to appear” citation to juveniles instead of taking them directly to a facility.
- Assessing youths to determine if they could be in a program other than detention while awaiting trial or sentencing.
- Requiring the district attorney to review cases to determine if youths with one or no prior cases should be offered diversion.
- Encouraging defenders to specialize in juvenile justice matters.
A summary of the group’s recommendations is available online.
The workgroup recommended any money saved by not placing young offenders in the complex or group homes be redirected to community-based programs. Youths who couldn’t return home because they had committed a sex crime against someone living in the same home would go to emergency shelters, independent living programs or therapeutic foster care.
Seeking better results
Terri Williams, deputy corrections secretary, said she wouldn’t object to the cost if the placements resulted in improved public safety. But she said youths placed out of their homes generally are no less likely to commit another crime than those who receive community-based services, and some studies have found they may be more likely to do so.
Rubin, who is chairman of the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, described the current system as “counterproductive.” Youths often don’t receive services they need in group homes, he said, and may be placed with higher-level offenders.
“Often these low-level youth are influenced by more serious youth and learn to be better criminals, which is what we want to avoid,” he said. “It seems we don’t generally get better outcomes from spending all that extra money.”
Rosemary Menninger, who is a trustee with The Villages group home organization, said she sees positive outcomes on a regular basis as youths improve their grades and learn to follow rules. The Villages has five homes in Topeka and two in Lawrence.
“I’m amazed, as a board member, the transformation so many of them make in a short time,” she said.
Karl Menninger, a prominent Topeka psychiatrist, founded The Villages in 1964 to provide home-like settings for wards of the state. It later shifted to housing youths in the juvenile justice system because the state was less willing to pay for group home placements for children in foster care, Rosemary Menninger said. She worried a desire to cut costs is the primary motive for moving away from group home placements.
Many of the youth in the juvenile justice system have been in foster care, Menninger said, and The Villages offers a stable home they lacked before.
“They really respond to each other and to the house parents,” she said.
The proposal also would only allow youths to be placed in the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex if they pose a “significant risk of harm to another person.” The report recommended limiting time in the complex to one year for most crimes. Youths could be sentenced up to two years for felonies involving harm to a person and up to three years for aggravated sodomy, rape and second-degree murder, with the ability to depart from guidelines and raise the sentence to five years.
Crime down but placements up
Pam Lachman, a senior associate at the Crime and Justice Institute, which partners with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said crimes by juveniles in Kansas have fallen over the past decade, but the number of youths in group homes or juvenile facilities hasn’t kept pace.
Youths are moving from placement to placement more frequently and spending longer in the system than they did a decade ago, she said, with those at the complex having eight placements on average.
“This is not being driven by youth coming into the system. It’s more placements,” she said.
The arrest rate among Kansans age 10 to 17 fell by 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, but the number of youths being placed out-of-home, which includes group homes and the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex, fell by only about half that much.
The data didn’t show that youths were committing more serious offenses than they had a decade ago, Lachman said. The majority, including a significant number at the complex, were arrested for misdemeanors, she said.
The report estimated about two-thirds of youths in residential facilities were convicted of misdemeanors, and more than 90 percent had two or fewer prior convictions. Seven of the 11 most common offenses were misdemeanors. The exceptions were felony burglary, felony aggravated indecent liberties with a child, felony criminal threat and felony theft.
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