Topeka — On paper, the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority will undergo major changes during the next few months as the organization merges with the state Department of Corrections. But while letterheads will change, officials said the function of the JJA will remain the same.
“I don’t know that we’re going to see any difference here,” said Pam Weigand, director of Douglas County youth services.
Lawmakers had until Thursday to register opposition to an executive order merging the two agencies, but the combination passed easily through the House and Senate. The measure, which will go into effect on July 1, brings the JJA under the administrative umbrella of the Department of Corrections.
The executive order, ERO 42, signed by Gov. Sam Brownback in mid-January, responded to a November 2012 legislative audit that identified major flaws in the JJA’s security measures and rehabilitation programs.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and former state Sen. “Rip” Gooch, D-Wichita, testified before the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice committee this week in opposition to the executive order. Ward said the legislature “thoughtfully and purposefully” created the JJA as an autonomous organization and said the merger was a “knee-jerk reaction” that would have to be undone in a few years.
Gooch, who was heavily involved in the creation of the JJA in the late 1990s, implored the committee to consider “fixing the roof instead of tearing the whole house down.” Ward and Gooch said the consolidation, which would eliminate the JJA as a distinct line item on the state budget, would cause further cuts to already bare-boned initiatives.
Proponents argued the merger would generate administrative savings that could then be re-invested in juvenile programs.
“They’ve already moved over certain functions like IT support and accounting functions,” Weigand said.
Two Brownback appointees, Ray Roberts, secretary of the Department of Corrections, and Terri Williams, interim commissioner of the JJA and former deputy secretary of community and field services in the Kansas Department of Corrections, testified before the House committee in support of the merger. Williams assured lawmakers that no employees would be laid off as a result of the merger; anyone in a redundant position would be “repurposed” rather than dismissed.
Some lawmakers expressed concern that the administrative merger would lead to an informal operational merger wherein correctional officers or even inmates may be transferred between juvenile and adult detention facilities. Raymond and Williams said such actions remain unlawful, but they offered little to assuage further concerns that the penal philosophy required in the Department of Corrections would overpower the rehabilitative mind-set of the juvenile system.
“That’s a fear, but Douglas County signed on to the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which may mitigate that threat here,” Weigand said.
The JDAI, a program developed by The Annie E. Casey Foundation to reduce secure confinement and stimulate juvenile justice reforms, was adopted by Kansas two years ago. Weigand said Douglas and four other counties are currently involved in the program.
Of the 54 juvenile offenders in the Douglas county JJA system, only five are currently detained in the Douglas County Juvenile Detention Center awaiting adjudication; the others are enrolled in community-based supervision.