- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas lawmakers showed overwhelming support for a measure seeking to overhaul the juvenile justice system, saying it would save money and reduce the recidivism rate.

Under the proposal being considered in the House, low-risk juvenile offenders and those who violate probation for the first time could be referred to community-based programs that allow them to stay in homes with their families instead of being placed in juvenile detention centers as they are currently.

House representatives gave the measure a first-round approval vote Friday, after it passed 38-2 in the Senate last month. A Senate conference committee will review the changes to the measure if it passes an expected final-round approval in the House Monday.

“It will help generations of Kansas kids to get out of the system, stay out of the system and live better lives,” Republican Rep. Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, said about the reform proposal during a debate Friday. He noted that keeping a child out of the criminal system reduces their chances of recidivism as an adult.

Youth offenders who commit low- or mid-level offenses will now receive an intervention plan that allows them to stay in the community, although high-risk offenders will continue to be incarcerated. Currently, juvenile offenders are placed in juvenile detention centers, foster homes or group homes for any level offense.

The state will save $72 million over the next 5 years by sending kids to community-based programs such as anger management and therapy instead of jails, Finch said. The plan will also add $8 million into a juvenile justice improvement fund in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. A provision in the proposal prohibits the governor from allotting money from the fund to other programs.

The House committee also added a provision to reserve up to 50 beds in group homes for juvenile offenders without a safe home environment, while the previous measure approved by the Senate said all group homes would close by July 2018. Some legislators and law enforcement agencies worried that communities would lose an economic source and that offenders who committed higher-level misdemeanors would be apt to re-offend if all homes closed.

Republican Rep. Greg Lewis, of St. John, said the House version of the bill might allow the Pratt Home Achievement Place, a group-home for at-risk juvenile offenders in South Central Kansas, to remain open.

The 11 boys in the home attend local school, pay for court-costs through money earned from jobs, volunteer in the community and learn skills such as doing their own laundry.

“Some of these homes are so broken, there’s no place to send the child back home to,” Lewis said about the home environments for youth at the Pratt center.

Republican Sen. Greg Smith from Overland Park, chairman of the committee that sponsored the Senate bill, told The Associated Press that the House committee improved the measure by tightening up the language and including a specific plan for a 19-member oversight committee tasked with making constant improvements to the system.

But he added that the Senate conference committee would “like to hear the rationale” behind keeping some group homes open for juvenile offenders instead of closing them within the next two years.

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