- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas juvenile justice system is set to undergo an overhaul by offering community-based services instead of incarceration to juvenile offenders.

The Senate Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice voted on Wednesday to close group homes for juvenile offenders in July 2018. The bill also proposes to create a team to review cases with the input of families and educators and offer additional training for juvenile corrections officers.

Juvenile offenders who violate probation will also be referred to community-based programs that allow them to stay in the homes with their families instead of being placed in a juvenile detention center as they are currently.

Republican committee Chairman Greg Smith from Overland Park Smith said the full Senate will vote on the bill by next week. The House has not voted on the bill.

Smith told the Associated Press on Thursday that community-based programs such as anger management for low and mid-level juvenile offenders would offer the greatest change to the system.

Legislators debated changes to the 110-page bill for three days, which included restricting prison time for juvenile offenders. 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.

“We have a tendency to warehouse juvenile offenders that are low-level or low risk,” Smith said, adding that youth are currently incarcerated for shoplifting although adults are not.

Democratic Senator Pat Pettey from Kansas City took part in a bipartisan group that conducted a study on the juvenile justice system and whose findings helped create the framework for the bill. That group found Kansas has the sixth-highest rate of juvenile offenders placed in juvenile detention centers or group homes in the country.

The group also found that keeping children in those facilities can cost as much as $89,000 a year for each youth.

“We’ve reduced the number of children that are in juvenile detention centers, but we’ve increased the number of children who need care in those situations, so we want to see those children being dealt with in communities,” Pettey told the Associated Press after the debate on Tuesday.

Senators on the committee heard testimony in early February from both sides of the issue, including district court judges, parents and educators.

Cherrie Reynolds, a mother from Atchison, told legislators on the second day of the committee hearing that community-based services helped her adopted son avoid juvenile detention.

Reynolds’ son, who was born addicted to cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, had a series of mental and physical health problems that made it difficult for him to function in school and led to him being arrested several times.

She said she sought the help a decade ago of community-based services, much like those the bill would divert low-level juvenile offenders to instead of putting them in juvenile detention centers.

“The good news is, he’s come through on the other side,” Reynolds said.

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