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Juvenile Justice Overhaul Proposal in Kansas Draws Praise

Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio

The plaudits for Sen. Greg Smith came from points across the political spectrum this week as he shepherded a juvenile justice overhaul bill through the Kansas Senate.

Smith, a Republican from Olathe, Kansas who chairs the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, devoted a full week of hearings to Senate Bill 367, which seeks to refocus the juvenile justice system on rehabilitation rather than confinement.

He also allowed a week for stakeholders to try to hammer out their differences after the hearings. And that was after studying the issue for months between legislative sessions as co-chairman of a volunteer workgroup that included experts in corrections and the law .

Several Senate colleagues praised Smith before passing the bill 38-2 on Tuesday and sending it to the House.

“When you have major legislation, this is exactly how it should go through the process,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from Sedgwick, Kansas who is considered more centrist than the conservative Smith.

Smith said he initially was skeptical of the drive to move away from housing offenders in 13 group homes known as youth residential centers that serve as lower-level confinement than the state’s two juvenile prisons in Topeka and Larned.

But the more research he read, the more convinced he became that the Kansas system was “warehousing kids instead of working to find solutions” that keep juveniles from reoffending.

“The goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation by its very definition,” Smith said. “The Kansas model does nothing to exhibit that.”

Smith said the “vast majority” of Kansas kids in the residential group homes are low-level offenders, and the homes that would be closed under the bill are a mixed bag. Some are doing well at reintegrating offenders, but some are not.

The bill would free $2 million for evidence-based recidivism programs that Smith said would be more effective and could serve up to 460 kids.

“That’s almost the entire juvenile justice system,” Smith said. “Two million dollars is a great start.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, also praised Smith’s work, but with one caveat: The shift to community-based rehabilitation will only work, she said, if the state commits long-term to properly funding the local recidivism-fighting programs.

“I’m really concerned about whether we’re going to do what we did when we shut down the state hospitals” in the 1990s, Kelly said. “We did not have the infrastructure in place with the community mental health centers to handle it.”

Smith said that if the bill becomes law, planning would begin in July to have community-based programs ready when the group homes close in mid-2018.

He also said his background as a former police officer and the father of a murder victim means his colleagues can trust that he would not support the bill if were too accommodating of juvenile offenders or insensitive to their victims.

“You all know my law enforcement history,” said Smith, who wrote an editorial for the Wichita Eagle outlining the bill and the process behind it. “I am not soft on crime.”

At a news conference Tuesday another Democrat, Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence, said she hoped Smith’s deliberate, well-researched approach to juvenile justice reform could be a model for debate on other issues, like Medicaid expansion.

“What we understood from that process was it was an effort to actually have a committee spend time hearing testimony, looking through all different proposals from various groups, vetting that and having that time,” Francisco said. “That’s what we need to address Medicaid expansion. I think that would be impossible to do on the (Senate) floor but very possible to do in committee.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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