The Kansas Senate on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to the state’s juvenile justice system that would reduce reliance on incarceration and emphasize counseling and therapy programs.
Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, told lawmakers that after months of study by a bipartisan group it became obvious the state’s juvenile justice system was broken.
“In short, we’re warehousing kids instead of working to find solutions,” he said.
The overhaul in the 112-page bill includes some 40 policy changes, solutions that are evidence-based, said Smith, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and co-chairman of the study group.
“We’re putting kids first, families first, while promoting public safety,” Smith said of the reforms.
The bill would close group homes for juvenile offenders by July 2018, standardize sentencing and require training for juvenile justice professionals. It would provide $2 million in seed money for community-based programs, such as family therapy and anger management.
The working group found that Kansas had one of the highest rates of juvenile offenders placed in detention centers and other out-of-home placements, which can cost $90,000 a year per offender. That’s about 10 times the cost of probation, Smith said.
While the reform plan provides options for lower-level offenders, it doesn’t reduce sentences for serious offenders, he said.
“This is a program that will be sustainable,” said Smith, a high school teacher and former police officer. “It is not soft on crime. I have not been nor will ever be soft on crime.”
Smith lost his 18-year-old daughter Kelsey in an abduction and murder in 2007.
The bill goes next to the House. Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, co-chaired the study group with Smith.
At a meeting of his committee earlier in the legislative session, Rubin said out-of-home placement is costly and often isn’t needed to protect the public.
“Some of the decisions we make don’t have the best interests of the youth at heart — or are even in the best interest of public safety,” Rubin said.
The bill is expected to reduce the out-of-home juvenile population by 62 percent in five years and reduce costs over that time by about $75 million. That money is to be reinvested in community programs and treatment.
In other action Tuesday, the Senate:
▪ Approved a bill creating a volunteer foster care program that would accept only married couples and homes free of alcohol and tobacco.
While foster families in the CARE program would not receive the typical stipend, they would receive reimbursement for education expenses if they don’t choose public schools.
Couples in the program would have to be married for seven years and in a stable relationship. Only one spouse could work outside the home.
“It establishes a new and different category of foster care as a pilot program,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican who developed the idea.
Opponents of the pilot program questioned its family qualifications. The marriage requirement would rule out single parents and many same-sex couples.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the bill essentially creates a school voucher program and, while it prohibits alcohol and smoking, doesn’t address guns or gun safety in foster homes.
“I find it the height of hypocrisy,” Hensley said.
▪ Passed a bill that would increase vehicle registration fees by $3.25 to pay for an additional 75 Kansas Highway Patrol troopers and to help fund the state’s law enforcement training center.
The staffing problem has meant that dozens of counties have no trooper or only one assigned to them, the patrol has said. And the shortages have resulted in longer response times and a drop in DUI and speeding arrests.
The new fee would be added to the current registration fee, which for most vehicles is $35 or $45.
▪ Approved a measure that would make it a misdemeanor to transmit nude photos of a minor by someone under age 19.
Such a violation is currently a felony offense and requires registration as a sex offender.
The reduction to a misdemeanor is intended to reduce teen “sexting” by making it more likely prosecutors will charge young offenders.
▪ In the Kansas House on Tuesday, lawmakers turned down a proposal to increase the speed limit on interstate highways in rural areas from 75 mph to 80 mph. Several western states have 80 mph speed limits, but legislators worried about safety.
House members did approve a bill to allow the Kansas secretary of transportation to increase speed limits by 5 mph on some non-interstate highways.