Juvenile Justice Legislation Advances In Kansas House Committee

Mar 14, 2017

The Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Monday advanced a bill making changes to the sweeping juvenile justice reforms put in place last year.

Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin who chairs the committee, said some people thought the reforms had some unintended consequences, leading to a request for a full repeal of last year’s bill.

Jennings said tweaking the reforms can offer improvement while still realizing budget savings and reinvesting money in youth programs.

“That can strengthen the juvenile justice reform act that was passed last year and still leave most of that intact in a very strong way,” Jennings said.

Under the law passed last year, misdemeanor offenders must be given the opportunity to complete an “immediate intervention program,” or IIP, instead of prosecution. These diversion programs seek to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system.

The bill would give judges more flexibility to order juvenile detention for youths who use a gun in a crime. An unintended consequence from the juvenile justice overhaul was that some gun crimes, like a drive-by shooting, might only result in probation.

“Those are pretty serious offenses that at least the court should have an option to do something more,” Jennings said.

Some of the changes were crafted by Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa who is also an attorney. They restore a little flexibility for prosecutors when charging certain juvenile offenders.

Finch’s amendments would rescind the diversion program requirement for offenders who plead down to a misdemeanor from a felony charge and for all sex offenses, even misdemeanors. Prosecutors still would be able to offer diversion to those offenders, but they wouldn’t have to.

“This is a little bit more discretion back into the IIP process,” Finch said.

Finch also offered two other amendments: One would require the state to create a database of offenders who have received diversion in the past, so the state can track re-offenders. The other would crack down on “absconders,” or offenders who skip out on their probation requirements.

Finch said the Kansas Department of Corrections can use the rules and regulations process to address other legislator concerns – like making sure existing diversion programs like Youth Court fit into the new IIP statutes.

Advocates of last year’s reforms had acknowledged there were elements of the reforms that needed to be revamped but feared opponents would attempt more drastic changes.

The bill will now go to the full Kansas House for consideration. Lawmakers used a procedural move to shift the juvenile justice changes into a Senate bill, SB 42. That could expedite passage of the legislation.

Democratic Rep. Boog Highberger said further changes might be needed, and an oversight committee created by the legislation can meet over the summer to make recommendations. He wants them to continue looking at tweaks rather than throwing out the juvenile justice overhaul.

“I think it needs a little more time to let it work,” Highberger said.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso.