Lawmakers Introduce New Juvenile Justice Reform Bill

Feb 2, 2016

Credit Richard Ross

A new bill aimed at reforming juvenile justice has been introduced in the Kansas Statehouse. Advocates of the bill say it will keep low-risk youth offenders out of prison while saving the state money.

According to the advocacy group Kansans United for Youth Justice, 35 percent of young people locked up in the state are there for misdemeanors only, something that’s not done for adult offenders.

Benet Magnuson, a member of the organization, says the bill would essentially end this practice and would ensure that the state is only incarcerating minors who commit a felony and are deemed high-risk.

“People know the system is broken, and they’re really looking for strong leadership from the legislature to fix this,” Magnuson says. “We know what works from other states, we just need to bring that to Kansas.”

Magnuson says the money saved from incarcerating fewer people will go towards therapy and mentoring programs in communities across Kansas. The goal is to rehabilitate youth in their own communities, closer to their families.

Legislators heard from advocates on Monday, and will hear from opponents later this week.

More from KHI News Service's Megan Hart:

Proponents of changing the juvenile justice system offered a legislative committee examples of cases where they say it “overpunished” youth, including a teenager with developmental delays who is now incarcerated.

Megan Milner, deputy superintendent of the Kansas Juvenile Corrections Complex, told the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee on Tuesday that a proposed reform bill wouldn’t excuse crimes by adolescents, but it would allow juvenile justice professionals to take their level of development and any trauma they have experienced into account. Many of the youths at the corrections complex were convicted of misdemeanors and don’t benefit from being incarcerated, she said.

One current inmate is a 13-year-old girl whose mental development is closer to a preschooler’s, Milner said, who is incarcerated for misdemeanor battery. While “it’s not OK” to commit battery, Milner said, the girl’s mental condition and history of violent trauma mean traditional prison tactics aren’t likely to correct her behaviors.

“The (staff) psychologist said, ‘Miss Milner, how would you discipline your 3- or 4-year-old child? That’s how you need to respond to her,’” she said, describing a discussion on how to discipline the girl for inappropriate behaviors.

Senate Bill 367 would make sweeping changes to the Kansas juvenile justice system, including implementing a statewide diversion system for low-risk youths and building multidisciplinary teams to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. It also would end the use of group homes and institute maximum sentences for youths, with a goal of keeping them in their communities.

Topeka resident Taylor Miller told the committee that community services could have helped keep her family together. Miller, 24, had four younger brothers who were removed from the home after their mother fell ill with cancer and the boys had minor brushes with the law, she said.

One brother had problems with truancy because he wanted to stay with their mother, Miller said, and twin brothers were picked up for driving underage when they borrowed a car to try to drive to the hospital despite being only 13.

The three brothers were placed in a variety of foster homes and group homes, and a fourth brother was placed with their grandmother and later adopted by an unrelated family, she said. One brother now lives with a girlfriend, another lives with her and and a third is incarcerated at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

“It wouldn’t have started if they would have just kept them at home and supervised them at home,” she said.

Cheryl Reynolds, of Atchison, said community services made a difference for her adopted son, Jacob, who has Asperger syndrome and physical issues stemming from his biological mother’s use of methamphetamine and other drugs. Jacob would get into trouble at school, once causing $2,000 in damage to a classroom, and spent time in a mental health treatment facility, she said.

His trajectory changed when Keys for Networking, a group that helps parents of troubled children, assisted Reynolds’ efforts with the school system and his probation officer, she said. They emphasized Jacob had an opportunity for a fresh start, which helped him to graduate high school, she said.

“Instead of pounding at him, they lifted him up,” Reynolds said. “When kids have that many people behind them, they’re not going to let them down.”

Opponents of the bill will testify later this week.

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