By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
TOPEKA – Living conditions in Kansas’ juvenile detention centers are ugly.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback calls the findings of theft, injuries and sexual abuse reported in one state audit, and the shortcomings in teaching jobs and life skills uncovered in another evidence of what he called a “failed social services approach,” to dealing with young offenders.
He proposes merging Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority – which in 1997 took over rehabilitation efforts run by the state’s former Social and Rehabilitation Services – with the Kansas Department of Corrections, a network of seven prisons and a mental hospital housing about 9,400 adult inmates.
“It’s time,” Brownback said. “Moving (the Juvenile Justice Authority to the Department of Corrections) will increase the emphasis on safety while continuing to provide programs proven to get our youth back on the right track.”
Brownback said he will propose the merger in a formal executive reorganization proposal to the Kansas Legislature when it convenes Jan. 14. It will become effective 60 days later unless either the Kansas House or Senate votes to reject it.
Few observers dispute that the change would prove better for the more than 300 Kansas teens and minors confined in the state’s two juvenile justice centers in Topeka and Larned. But it is less clear how 1,200 other young offenders – placed in group homes and other less confined settings to turn their lives around – would fare.
“I hope we continue to have a system that recognizes young people make mistakes and that we endeavor to change behavior in ways that will reduce bad behaviors,” said former state Juvenile Justice Commissioner Russ Jennings
Jennings, who left the Authority in 2010, long before the state auditors investigated the operations, was elected to the state House last month. The Lakin Republican said he needed more information about Brownback’s proposal in order to evaluate it.
Outgoing Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairwoman Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, said the success of the proposed merger would depend a lot on how local organizations known as Juvenile Corrections Advisory Boards fare in the new arrangements.
The so-called JCABs are local committees of judiciary workers, peace officers and local government in each of Kansas’ 31 judicial districts formed to tweak juvenile corrections policy at the grassroots level.
“We want the system to continue including local people who understand their local communities,” Colloton said.
“The adult corrections system is very punitive; its main goal is not rehabilitation,” said outgoing state Sen. Dick Kelsey, R- Wichita, who once owned and operated group homes for troubled teens.
“You’ve got two choices when you are in juvie — clean up your act or go into the adult system, Kelsey said. “We’ve had a very successful 15 years keeping many young offenders from moving into the adult system.”
Kelsey, who helped block previous efforts to merge the state’s juvenile and adult corrections, said he would block this one, too ,if he were returning to the Senate.
If rehabilitation efforts for adolescent offenders are weakened in the merger, “we’ll end up paying for this for a long, long time,” he said.
Contact Gene Meyer at [email protected]
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]