This article was co-authored by R Street energy policy director Josiah Neeley.
If you want to measure a law’s worth, you should look not to the glowing speeches given when it is passed, but to how it has worked in practice over the following years. By that standard, Senate Bill 367 — a major reform of Kansas’ juvenile justice system passed in April 2016 — is something of which Kansans should be proud.
An overhaul of Kansas’ juvenile justice system was desperately needed. The state ranked sixth in the nation in the number of juvenile offenders incarcerated, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Though crime has fallen rapidly both throughout the nation and in Kansas, this fall hasn’t been reflected in youth incarceration rates in the state to the same degree. And while youth arrests have also dropped over the last decade, the state’s arrest rate decline hasn’t paralleled the steeper decline experienced by the nation as a whole.
The high rate of youth incarceration has been a fiscal drain on the state’s scarce resources. Each youth placed outside the home can cost the state up to $89,000 a year. And more importantly, this high incarceration rate isn’t making us safer. A 2015 report by a bipartisan working group charged with examining the issue found that the “vast majority” of children placed outside the home through the juvenile justice system were not at high-risk of reoffending. Incarceration, on the other hand, can trigger a cycle of repeated criminality and undermine the ties to family, community and school necessary to put a child back on the right course.
SB 367 sought to tackle this problem in a variety of ways. Under the law, new law enforcement guidelines were developed regarding when to issue citations for offenses instead of arrests. Detention is now reserved for juveniles in most need of attention.
Incarceration remains an option for juveniles who pose a high risk to the safety of others but, in the majority of cases, the community is better off when youth offenders are facing the consequences of their behavior at home with their families. The bill also promotes local programs aimed at reducing the risk that juveniles will reoffend once they finish their sentences.
While it’s early yet, initial indications show that SB 367 has had a dramatic effect on how the state’s juvenile justice system operates. According to a recent presentation by officials with the Kansas Department of Corrections, the state’s juvenile justice system has seen significant improvements in almost every stage in the process. Overall, the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system has decreased by 11 percent.
For those children in the system, detention is less common. The number of kids sent to detention rather than being placed back in the home has fallen by 16 percent. The total population in juvenile corrections facilities declined by 8 percent, while the number in group homes fell by an astonishing 58 percent.
The number of children placed on probation for high-risk behavior has fallen as well. Under the new system, KDOC has responsibility for handling probation for high-risk youth offenders assigned to Juvenile Intensive Supervision Probation (JISP). Over the last fiscal year, the caseload of juvenile offenders placed in JISP has fallen by more than 11 percent.
These declines, particularly those associated with group homes, have already resulted in more than $12 million in savings to the state. Much of this money will be reinvested in community-based services to further reduce the reoffending rate.
Beyond the dollars and cents, the reforms have had a human benefit for Kansans, as more children will be able to spend Christmas at home with their families. While the long-term effects are still to be assessed, SB 367 is already having a positive impact on the state.
Josiah Neeley is energy policy director and Arthur Rizer is director of criminal justice and security policy at the R Street Institute.