Reform of Kansas juvenile justice system raising concerns, but immediate action unlikely

? A massive reform of the Kansas juvenile justice system that lawmakers passed in 2016 has hit some bumps in the road, a legislative committee was told Wednesday, but it is unlikely the panel will recommend major changes, at least not in the upcoming session.

“I’m not going to propose any major changes,” said Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, the ranking minority member on the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

The reform package enacted last year was generally intended to steer juvenile offenders away from out-of-home detention centers and into community-based programs that would enable the youths to remain in their homes and in schools.

Funding for those community-based programs is supposed to come from the money saved by not incarcerating the offenders. In fact, the state has already closed one juvenile detention center in Larned, and it plans to reduce the total number of beds in detention centers to 50 or fewer within the next several months.

That has raised concerns in some communities where officials think that may not be enough space for the most violent and dangerous juvenile offenders in the state.

“The Kansas Department of Corrections has a request for proposals for less than 50 beds, but is that sufficient?” said Stuart Little, a lobbyist for the Kansas Community Corrections Association. “Few in the field believe 50 beds is sufficient, and less than 50 beds is possibly a risk.”

A number of people also raised concerns about a process known as “risk and needs assessment,” in which local officials are supposed to measure how much of a risk a juvenile offender poses to the community, and what kinds of programs or sanctions are appropriate for offenders.

Shelly Williams, director of Riley County Community Corrections, said Kansas has not yet adopted standardized cut-off scores for those assessments, which means offenders may be treated differently from one jurisdiction to the next.

“The lack of established statewide cut-off scores leaves each jurisdiction determining who is supervised by which agency,” she said. “As a result, this makes transferring juvenile offenders to different jurisdictions in the state confusing at best.”

But former Sen. Greg Smith of Overland Park, who was one of the main architects of the reform plan in 2016 before he lost his bid for re-election that year, discouraged the committee from recommending any major changes until the plan has been in place for at least two years.

“The Legislature has done a good job with the rollout and the training,” said Smith, who now chairs a separate, non-legislative oversight committee for the program. “We’ve hit every mark that the legislation says we’re supposed to hit on time, and we’re on track to hit all the others on time as well, so I’m not too concerned about that, unless you get a big upswell from one particular group or another, and then we start tweaking things, and then when you do that, you change the whole component of how it works.”

The committee will continue meeting Thursday when members are expected to discuss what recommendations, if any, to make to the full Legislature when it reconvenes in January.

In addition to the juvenile justice reform project, the panel is also examining trends in the adult prison population, and possible changes to sentencing laws to prevent the prisons from becoming overcrowded.