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Kansas might tighten criminal penalties for kids, after loosening them 6 years ago

A group of people walking at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
A group of people walking at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex.

The bill would bring back some penalties that were cast aside six years ago when Senate Bill 367 was passed.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Christina Smith says her son has threatened to kill her.

Smith was recovering from knee surgery when her child threw her against a wall because he didn’t want to go back to a psychiatric ward. She tried to call 911, but her son took her phone. Police have been to her house before, yet Smith said they didn’t do anything meaningful.

She testified to lawmakers earlier this month that efforts to reform the state’s juvenile justice system through Senate Bill 367 six years ago amounted to good intentions that came with some unintended, and often frustrating, consequences.

Critics of the existing law essentially argue that it’s become too hard to handle problem kids by ruling out penalties — including locking them up — that might be necessary even with children.

“We tried every service from therapy, mental health services, medication and the (serious emotional disturbance) waiver,” she said.

The law tried to spare kids from getting locked up so often but it also allowed kids to avoid treatment.

Smith and others said the law went too far in some ways that have made it harder to control, and help, children battling through serious behavioral and mental health problems.

“Bill 367 allows grace for juveniles that make mistakes,” she said, “but the law has put me in danger more times than I can count.”

Now, lawmakers are trying to retool the law to bring back more penalties for children who commit crimes. Supporters of the bill said it brings back accountability. Opponents see it as unforgiving and regressive.

Yet state Rep. Carl Maughan, a Colwich Republican, called SB 367 an “unmitigated disaster” and called for it to be repealed and completely reworked.

“I'm not in the camp of just lock them all up,” Maughan said. “But the current system under 367 is clearly not working and this tinkering around the edges seems to be a problem.”

Both supporters and opponents of the bill generally agreed on a need to find alternatives to criminal detention.

Lawmakers are pushing forward with expanding access to juvenile crisis centers. They would keep kids in mental health crises out of detention facilities and get them psychiatric help. They are generally a short-term solution. A bill offering a slight tweak in state law would allow those centers to accept children with behavioral health problems rather than just kids with mental health needs.

Behavioral health still includes mental health, but it would allow centers to take in children without a psychiatric diagnosis. Kansas has a pool of money set aside to help create the centers, but the $6 million has remained untouched for over five years.

The bill would allow for kids to be detained on probation violations for 24 hours for a first offense, 48 hours for a second offense and up to 15 days for a third or subsequent offense — even if those offenses were technical violations or falling into contempt of court.

It also doubles the time a juvenile can be detained per case, bumping it up to 90 days.

Jen Christie, who has two decades of criminal justice experience, opposed the bill and said putting kids in detention is counterproductive. She said youth who were detained were 11% more likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to need public assistance and that 24% of kids detained in Oregon were suicidal.

She said involvement in the criminal justice system only makes someone more likely to interact with it again. She worries detention for probation violations will trip kids up unnecessarily.

“Detaining someone causes trauma,” Christie said. “It causes psychological damage. It causes mental health damage, and it does not improve situations.”

Mike Fonkert, campaign director for the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said the bill will mean more Kansas kids being locked up.

Fonkert said he would support the change in law if it removed its provisions around detention. The bill frees up money to invest in more kids, expands behavioral services and makes the Department for Children and Families and Kansas Department of Corrections work more closely together — including the ability to share confidential information.

Fonkert said the bill throws together too many changes. He wants to see language around detention taken and studied more closely.

“Look at facts, evidence and the wide breadth of research that exists on these topics,” he said.

Fonkert said the changes approved six years ago are working. A vast majority of kids — as high as 90% in one estimation — get community programming. But there is growing concern that children are being left out.

Changing state law to bring more penalties has support from district attorneys, judges and multiple foster care agencies. They told legislators that youth justice reform brought by Senate Bill 367 has created inadvertent gaps in the state’s response to behavioral health and the youth justice system.

Supporters of the bill said kids have too few consequences, are less likely to enroll in services that can help – like substance abuse treatment – and even face a higher risk of being charged as adults.

They argue the existing law and its limits on the amount of time they can be disciplined — locked up or some other consequence — is too soft. That, they say, can prompt kids to laugh off possible penalties.

Linda Bass, president of foster care agency KVC Kansas, told lawmakers earlier this month previous legislation shifted problems from the criminal justice system to the foster care system.

She said staff and foster homes didn’t get the right training. Bass said group homes bring poor health and life outcomes for kids and foster care placements can lack the structure and stability of the criminal justice system.

“Child welfare was not prepared for the influx of these children,” Bass said.

Around 11% of youth sent to KVC Kansas have behavioral problems that would have been addressed by the youth justice system before the passage of the new law six years ago. Those kids are coming in with needs that exceed what some families can provide, said Angela Hedrick, vice president of operations for KVC Kansas.

KVC is offering additional support to foster families, but some are still burned out and could opt not to renew their licenses rather than look after kids that would otherwise have been in a juvenile jail.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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