- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 23, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas senators on Tuesday voted to overhaul the juvenile justice system by offering community-based programs instead of jail for low-risk juvenile offenders.

The measure will close group homes for juvenile offenders by July 2018. Youths who violate probation will 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. The Senate voted 38-2 in favor of the bill, sending it to the House for further consideration.

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.

Republican Sen. Greg Smith from Overland Park, chairman of the Senate committee that sponsored the bill, said the overhaul will save more than $75.6 million over five years by closing group homes and reducing the bed impact in out-of-home placements. The savings will be redirected to community-based programs such as anger management and family therapy.

Smith said the bill “looks out for what’s best for kids, their families and crime rate.”

A bipartisan group of senators, judges and prosecutors conducted a six-month study on the juvenile justice system that created the framework of the 112-page bill. The group found that Kansas has the sixth-highest rate of juvenile offenders placed in juvenile detention centers or group homes in the country.

Keeping children in those facilities can cost as much as $89,000 a year for each youth, which is more than two-thirds of the Department of Correction’s juvenile justice budget. They also found that juvenile arrests declined by more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, although out-of-home placements were only reduced by half that amount.

The bill received bipartisan support from senators who commended the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee for spending several months conducting research and hearing testimony from both sides of the issue.

Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn from Sedgwick said the bill was an overdue undertaking that puts children and families first.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what is right for our juveniles and how we can find programs that help them get on the right path,” McGinn said, although she added that it would be a challenge to find ongoing funding for the programs.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican and one of the members who voted against the bill, echoed McGinn’s concern that there won’t be enough state funding to maintain the community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Longbine said the law enforcement community in Geary County, an area he represents, thought youths who commit higher-level misdemeanors such as shoplifting should continue going to jail instead of staying in their homes.

“There’s some concern about the accountability,” he said.



Information about juvenile justice bill: https://bit.ly/1Qeq85p

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