In what could be the most significant Kansas public policy reform this year, the House agreed in an initial vote Friday to join the Senate in a major overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system.
Under the reforms, the focus of the juvenile system would shift to community-based educational, vocational and therapy programs for many young offenders and rely less on detention.
“This rightsizes our juvenile justice priorities,” said Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican. “It will help generations of Kansas kids to get out of the system, stay out of the system and live better lives.”
Reducing the reliance on detention and other out-of-home placements for juvenile offenders is expected over five years to save about $72 million, which would be reinvested in community-based programs. The out-of-home population over that time is expected to drop about 60 percent.
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Sen. Greg Smith, the Overland Park Republican who shepherded the reforms through the Senate, looked on Friday as the House version won initial approval in a voice vote. Only “ayes” were heard, and no House members spoke in opposition.
“I think it shows the good this bill can do for the kids,” said Smith, who characterized the differences in the versions as “fairly minor.”
A final House vote could come Monday. Differences in the House and Senate versions would be worked out by negotiators from the two chambers, or the Senate could agree to the House changes.
Besides some differences related to sentencing guidelines, the Senate bill does away with the use of group homes or youth residential centers for juvenile offenders in July 2018 while the House version keeps 50 group home beds.
That’s still a big reduction from the 250 to 300 group home placements currently, said Rep. John Rubin, who championed the reform on the House side. Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, and Smith were co-chairmen of a juvenile justice working group last year.
Out-of-home placements can cost up to $90,000 a year for each offender, more than 10 times the cost of probation.
The evidence shows that while juvenile crime rates are down in Kansas, the state has one of the highest rates of detention and other out-of-home placements, Rubin said. That policy has been “significantly unhelpful” in reducing recividism and improving public safety, he said.
“This bill clearly goes a long way in bringing about better outcomes for kids and protecting public safety,” he said.
Rubin would have presented the 140-page bill to House members Friday but, earlier in the week, House Speaker Ray Merrick removed him as chairman and as a member of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee after a rules dispute on the House floor.
Rubin said he missed just two committee meetings on the reform bill after his removal and appreciated Merrick scheduling the bill to be heard Friday on the House floor.