Juvenile justice reform efforts gain momentum in Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Efforts to reform the juvenile justice system in Kansas got a boost Tuesday with the launch of a grass-roots campaign that among other things seeks to limit out-of-home confinement for certain youth offenders.

Kansas ranks eighth worst in the nation for the confinement of its youth, even though its juvenile crime rate is less than the national average.

Kansans United for Youth Justice on Tuesday released a report outlining problems and proposing reforms. A series of community meetings are also planned across the state beginning Tuesday in Overland Park and continuing in the coming days in Ottawa, Kansas City, Wichita and Garden City.

The coalition aims to end the practice of sending low and moderate-risk youths to prison or other outside confinement. It also wants to shift funding away from incarceration and to local intensive rehabilitation programs that it says research has shown are more effective.

“Doing nothing is not an option at this point. The research is out there and the problems have been clearly described and viable solutions are on the table,” said Benet Magnuson, a Kansans United for Youth Justice member.

The group’s campaign comes at the same time a juvenile justice workgroup — comprised of lawmakers, state corrections officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys — is separately working in Topeka to gather evidence and come up with recommendations on reform to present to the Legislature next year.

Kansas Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, is co-chair of the workgroup. Rubin said he would schedule hearings in his House committee in January or February on any legislation proposed by the workgroup.

A 2015 study by the Council of State Governments found that 42 percent of children sent to juvenile prisons in Kansas were incarcerated again within three years of their release. Kansas United for Youth Justice also points to a 2015 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that shows that while Kansas does not send adults to prison for misdemeanor convictions, 35 percent of Kansas youths released from prison last year had been convicted only of misdemeanors.

Magnuson, who is also executive director of the nonprofit legal aid group Kansas Appleseed, said there is broad bipartisan support in the Legislature and among the public for reform.

The state spends more than $53 million each year to incarcerate children or send them to out-of-home placements, according to the group’s report. Research shows 80 percent of children incarcerated are low- to moderate-risk offenders who would be better served by local rehabilitation programs, the report said.

“The great news is that we don’t need to find new money to do this,” Magnuson said.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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