Government & Politics

Xboxes, iPads, bikes: Why some Kansas youth on probation receive expensive incentives

On display at the Sedgwick County evening reporting center are incentives youth can earn. They include bicycles, video game consoles (in glass display case), gift cards and other high-priced items. The use of incentives reflects a shift in the juvenile justice system.
On display at the Sedgwick County evening reporting center are incentives youth can earn. They include bicycles, video game consoles (in glass display case), gift cards and other high-priced items. The use of incentives reflects a shift in the juvenile justice system. The Wichita Eagle

Xboxes. iPads. Amazon gift cards.

Some teens on probation in Sedgwick County receive high-priced items — paid for with public dollars — as rewards for succeeding in an after-school program that aims to keep them from committing crimes.

The expensive incentives provided by the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections are not in line with state recommendations that call for incentives of limited financial value. A similar program in Johnson County provides rewards up to $25.

County officials and lawmakers say the incentives, funded by a grant from the Kansas Department of Corrections, are part of a juvenile justice system that encourages youth to make positive choices. Kansas overhauled its approach in 2016 to keep youth out of detention whenever possible

The cost of the items pales in comparison to incarcerating youth, they contend.

“It is not about punishment, it is about accountability. But if you take an exclusive punishment approach to young offenders, all you will be doing is assuring you create adult offenders,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, the Republican chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

The incentives provided by the county’s evening reporting center range from trinkets and $5 or $10 gift cards for small accomplishments to video game consoles, bicycles and other objects worth hundreds of dollars for completing the program or probation.

A list of incentives obtained by The Eagle through a records request shows that video game consoles have been awarded at least 13 times since July 2018. Amazon gift cards were given more than a dozen times.

Among the incentives:

  • PlayStation 4 with an extra controller and Madden NFL game, valued at $390
  • Best Buy gift card, valued at $200
  • Xbox One, valued at $300
  • MacBook, valued at $1,200
  • iPad Mini, valued $485

Supporters of the center say the incentives are worth it if they keep kids out of detention or the criminal justice system later in life. Participants can spend hours a day receiving services and in classes learning skills designed to keep them out of trouble. Many are performing community service.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

After The Eagle received a tip that teens attending Sedgwick County’s evening reporting center were sometimes receiving expensive items as rewards for accomplishments, reporter Jonathan Shorman decided to check it out.

Shorman requested public records from the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections that would show the incentives provided. He received a spreadsheet listing each incentive, its value, the date it was provided and the reason. The spreadsheet confirmed that among the incentives were items valued at several hundred dollars.

To understand the data and place it in context, Shorman several times sent questions to Glenda Martens, the director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections. Additionally, he asked questions of the Kansas Department of Corrections and spoke to lawmakers focused on corrections and juvenile justice. He also asked other populous counties what incentives they offered.

Shorman, who typically works at the Kansas Capitol in Topeka, traveled to Wichita to spend time at the evening reporting center. In order to visit, he agreed not to quote anything said by the center’s participants.

The center has awarded about $22,522 in incentives since it began operating.

“One day in our juvenile detention facility costs $223.60 — so I would say this is a better way to invest in youth outcomes,” Glenda Martens, Sedgwick County Department of Corrections director, said in a statement.

The Kansas Department of Corrections provides a grid to county agencies showing possible incentives. The bigger the accomplishment, the bigger the reward.

For the biggest accomplishments, like completing the center’s program or finishing probation, recommended rewards include a special outing, a gift card or extended curfew.

KDOC spokeswoman Cheryl Cadue emphasized the grid serves as guidance and isn’t mandatory.

“However, we recommend incentives that do not have a large financial cost, if any at all,” Cadue said.

Since May 2018, the center has served 216 youth, with a successful completion rate of 71 percent, according to Martens.

Martens said the first checks on center graduates found no recidivism. But that is based on just the first two graduates of the program.

Rewards on display

At the Sedgwick County evening reporting center, a glass display case shows off incentives, including a Nintendo Switch and a beauty kit. A message on one wall encourages youth to fill out a sheet to keep track of the points they earn toward incentives.

“All the youth in this program are moderate to high risk youth so the award program helps to encourage them stay focused, participate, attend all their groups and work with their treatment provider,” Martens said.

This month, 52 youth — mostly boys — who have been through the juvenile court system are participating. Offenses run the gamut, from possession of marijuana to theft and battery.

The incentives are earned through a combination of attendance, participation, behavior and completion of the program and their probation, Martens said.

They don’t attend every day; most come two or three days a week for about three hours, depending on the sessions they’re taking. Teens typically attend for two or three months.

Many of the incentives are of low value or have practical uses. Youth often receive items like Rubix cubes and $5 gift cards to McDonald’s or Taco Bell as part of daily drawings. Passes to the movies worth $10 each are also frequent rewards.

Incentives have included a baby kit with wipes, bottles, blankets and toys, as well as a bedding kit with comforter and sheets. Bus passes, pots and pans, hygiene items and clothing have also been awarded.

A reporter visited the evening reporting center on a recent Tuesday and watched as programming kicked off around 4:30 p.m.. Officials allowed the visit on the condition that youth could not be named or quoted. Photography was prohibited.

The center purposefully doesn’t resemble a law enforcement setting. A common area has chairs clustered around a TV that’s usually playing a movie.

Board games like Sorry and Monopoly are available, along with books that include ACT and GED prep materials, Sudoku puzzles and the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.

An employee led nine youth in a game of bingo before dinner, which is served from an adjacent kitchen. Sandwiches, chips and bananas were on the menu.

But the teens spend most of their time in nearby classrooms in sessions focused on changing behaviors or combating substance abuse. Some of the rooms have Jayhawk, Wildcat or Shocker themes that staff hope will get participants thinking about college.

Incentives promoted nationally

Across the country, juvenile justice systems are placing more emphasis on rewarding good behavior than on punishing youth for slipping up. That includes the use of incentives.

“In the world of juvenile justice, historically, things were mostly what we (call) sanctions — punishments,” Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said. “And that just doesn’t work ... punishment does not work as well as reward.”

What’s less clear is whether Sedgwick County’s expensive incentives reflect what’s happening elsewhere.

An incentive workbook from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges says incentives should be meaningful to youth. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, based in Washington, D.C., has developed a master list of incentives to guide local agencies.

Some of Sedgwick County’s incentives echo what’s on the list, which includes DVDs, bicycles, a manicure or pedicure and prom dress or tuxedo rental.

“Incentives are shown, by research, to have a significant impact on behavior change, thus evidence-based and why the incentive component was built into this. Human behavior is likely to change when you reward/incentivize the desired behavior,” Cadue said.

And if that includes video game consoles and other big items, lawmakers and others involved in the juvenile justice system appear largely on board.

Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican and vice chair of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said some attention and guidance can make a big difference in the life of youth.

“If we look at it and say, geez, we blew $300 taxpayer money on an Xbox station — but did the reform that kid went through result in us not having to incarcerate him for a year’s time at a cost” of thousands of dollars, he said. “What’s the best move?”

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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