Plan to reform Kansas’ juvenile justice system comes under attack

A recent Kansas controversy over children in trouble has roots in the 1990s.

Back then, the state put the Juvenile Justice Authority in charge of young criminals and left child-in-need-of-care cases with the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS).

That split up efforts to help what are sometimes the same children.

The justice authority set up local branches, largely funded by counties, with programs that stress early intervention to stop criminal behavior, help children and protect the public. That system works much better now than it did under SRS, many say.

In late November, then-SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki flew into heavy flak when he told a House-Senate committee on corrections and juvenile justice that SRS would take over key juvenile justice programs. He also told them SRS could do the work better and it was part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s reorganization plan related to his Medicaid overhaul.

The committee, in a motion, opposed moving intake and assessment, crime prevention grants and other programs to the SRS. It also calls for a study.

Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican, told Siedlecki it offended him that the secretary, who recently came from Florida, took the action without knowing the history of the justice authority or consulting those who do.

Siedlecki responded that he now lives in Kansas and should be considered a Kansan.

He retreated in December, saying a committee of experts would study how the justice authority and SRS can best work together to help children. Then Brownback announced that Siedlecki had resigned to return to Florida and take a job there.

The study will still be done, a Brownback spokesperson said. Members of the House-Senate committee said they also support it.

“This is very far from breaking the agency up and giving part of it to SRS,” said committee chairman Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican.

Coordination could be improved, she said, and the study may lead to that.

“You will find that almost every juvenile offender is still a child in need of care,” Owens said.

Owens, general counsel for SRS from 1988 to 1991 and a family law attorney, said he may not be opposed to bringing the justice authority under SRS if it’s done correctly. To just announce a major change to a system that works well without even getting input is doing it wrong, he said.

A study on how best to help children is in order, he said.

“It’s something you always need to be studying and evaluating.”

Reginald Robinson, law professor at the Washburn University School of Law, is selecting members of the study committee.

Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning said he has asked on behalf of the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association that the group be involved.

The issue is critical at a time when a national organization recently started a different study in Kansas to find ways to keep more juvenile offenders out of detention, said Betsy Gillespie, Johnson County Corrections director