At the beginning of the year, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced a plan to consolidate state agencies focusing on child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice into one large umbrella agency in an effort to improve the state’s response to kids and families in trouble. If this new Department of Human Services seeks to build on prior juvenile justice reforms and adopts a public health framework to juvenile justice, Kelly just might see this goal accomplished.

The last time Kansas passed meaningful, comprehensive juvenile justice reform was in 2016. These reforms aimed to reduce out-of-home placements for low-risk youth, to ensure that high-risk youth received the resources they need, and to establish sustainable, evidence-informed services in localities.

They have since proven a wise investment. Diversion programs, also called immediate intervention programs or IIPs, allow certain juveniles to be diverted from the traditional juvenile justice system — and thus away from the often outdated, ineffective and expensive juvenile correctional facilities — and into community-based programs. According to a recent report, almost nine of every 10 young people diverted through an IIP in fiscal year 2019 successfully completed the program.

Due to Kansas’ smart reforms, the number of youths placed in juvenile correctional facilities quickly dropped by 24% between fiscal years 2015 and 2019. This has created savings that the state can reinvest in new, effective community programming. And when young people who successfully complete these programs abstain from future troublesome behavior, the community becomes safer.

But more remains to be done. Not all counties offer young people access to diversion programs. Those counties that already have diversion programs still have ample room to develop a greater number of highly effective IIPs to which youths can be referred. Additionally, the latest Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee report and reinvestment plan identified a need for more mental health and substance abuse services not only for diverted youths in the community, but for those in the juvenile justice system more generally.

This is where a new department could come in handy. According to Kelly, the Department of Human Services would prioritize youth crime prevention efforts, work to improve services to families and children and aim to develop stronger, helpful connections with community-based partners.

This blending of various public health and child welfare functions would create space for stronger internal partnerships among practitioners with varied experiences and perspectives. A juvenile justice lens traditionally focuses on retribution (punishment for past actions) and rehabilitation (preventing future crime), while a public health lens prioritizes developmentally appropriate responses to young people’s behavior while seeking to improve their health, academic and social outcomes. By housing juvenile justice services within a larger agency focused on health and human services, Kansas may see these lenses rightfully merge into a comprehensive network of community-based prevention and treatment services.

Indeed, policymakers in Los Angeles County, California, are finding this to be the case after creating a new division of Youth Development and Diversion in November 2017. Situated within the county’s Department of Health Services, this office is tasked with creating a network of youth development programs and services that could also serve youth diverted by police before an arrest. In late 2019, the department rolled out its new pre-arrest diversion programs at 10 pilot sites, with more to join in the near future.

Juvenile justice reform has served Kansas well. By building on these reforms and incorporating a public health lens into juvenile justice practice, Gov. Kelly’s new agency could present another chapter of opportunity for youth and families involved in the juvenile justice to receive the best of both worlds. For this reason, policymakers should support a smart reorganization effort.

Image credit: Michal Kalasek

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