Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Conversation With Benet Magnuson

Nov 6, 2015

Magnuson says wearing a prison uniform can be "a traumatic experience for a kid."
Credit Richard Ross

Kansas currently ranks in the bottom 10 states when it comes to incarceration rates among juveniles. A growing number of people throughout Kansas want to see changes in how communities handle offenders under the age of 18.

A new organization out of Lawrence is traveling throughout Kansas to draw attention to this issue. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur spoke with Benet Magnuson, the leader of the organization.

Could you first tell me about your organization?

Kansans United for Youth Justice is a new grassroots campaign to really engage the public on issues of juvenile justice reform. So, as part of that, we’ve been hosting community forums in several cities across the state. The one here in Wichita brought a lot of people from different walks of life: people who prosecute juvenile cases, court service officers, concerned parents, folks who do community programs for kids. Which I think is really important, because all the research, all the literature says that the solution to juvenile justice reform really lies in the community.

Your research shows that children and teenagers in Kansas are incarcerated at a much higher rate than in other states. 

That’s right. Kansas ranks sixth-worst in the country for the over-confinement of kids. Some of that is at our juvenile prisons, some of that is at other out-of-home placements. But the research shows that prisons and other out-of-home placements are the most expensive and least effective response to juvenile crime. Sometimes I think it can seem like a quick fix, when a kid is getting into trouble, to send them out of the community. But we really need to pay attention to the research, which shows that we’re not really doing anything to get that kid on the right path. We’re spending a lot of money to actually increase the risk of crime in our state.

You mentioned the ‘over-confinement of juveniles,' which, for your organization, means kids who are sitting in a jail cell for misdemeanors. Can you tell us what these juveniles are typically getting in trouble for?

It’s a wide range, and unfortunately, there’s a lot in Kansas on the very low end of the range. I think if you just ask someone in the community, who do you think is incarcerated at our juvenile prisons, they would probably say, "Oh, to get there, a kid must have committed a very serious crime, I mean, I’m sure we’re not locking up kids for misdemeanors." In fact, 35 percent of the kids who left our juvenile prisons in 2014 were there for misdemeanors only. They had never been convicted of a felony. So, there’s a lot that Kansas needs to do to re-balance our system. We’ve escalated it to a really unproductive level.

What does incarceration look like for these kids? What are they experiencing?

Incarceration is probably how you’d picture it. There’s not a lot of difference between a cell for a kid and a cell for an adult. You’re going to have the steel toilet, you’re going to have kids wearing the prison uniform, which can be a really traumatic experience for a kid. Kids are in an especially important, formative moment in their lives. And things like having strip searches, not getting to wear your own underwear—these can be very difficult for kids going through adolescence.

Benet Magnuson
Credit Sean Sandefur

And what does, in your mind, the better alternative look like?

Community alternative programs are things like functional family therapy, multisystemic therapy—things that keep the kid in their community, which comes with a lot of strengths. You’re not just addressing the risks and needs of that kid, but you’re also able to see how that kid exists in their family and their peer networks and really address the whole problem at the same time. One of the reasons that shows prison is ineffective, in fact counterproductive, is in part because of the trauma element, which can cause kids to get further off on the wrong path. But also, you can have the best programming in the world at a prison, but after that kid leaves, they’re going to go back to their community, their family, their friends, and if you haven’t done anything to really speak to that context, you haven’t made anything better.

Can you give me an example of something that these programs can accomplish? What are they doing in terms of therapy?

Depending on what risk or need a kid has, the program is going to be designed to address that. So, for kids who have a lot of anger and not a lot of skills in managing that anger appropriately, there are things like aggression replacement training, which is a standardized curriculum that works with the kid, sort of teaches them to calm themselves down, manage their anger. You can imagine, there are a lot of reasons why kids get angry, especially if there’s a lot of chaos and injustice in their life. I was talking to one young man who had been through aggression replacement training, just had a lot of stuff going on his life, but as I was talking to him, you could almost see a weight that had been lifted off him. He spoke very highly of the program.

I imagine that a lot of this will come down to funding. How does Kansas pay for this kind of change?

A third of the Department of Correction’s budget goes to funding the juvenile prisons alone. Another third gets used on those other out-of-home placements. In comparison, a tiny sliver of the budget is used for preventative services or those evidence-based community alternatives. If we were to get our incarceration rates for kids more in line with the nation, we could free up a lot of money to fund better programs. The estimates are that if all the reforms in the Kansans United for Youth Justice report were implemented, we’d probably see about $16-19 million a year that we wouldn’t have to spend on incarceration and that we could spend instead on things like mentoring for kids, after-school programs for kids, those really intensive interventions like functional family therapy and multi-systemic therapy.

Finally, you had mentioned that even if these programs weren’t offered—if the only thing that Kansas could accomplish was to simply not send kids who only commit misdemeanors to prison, that would still be better than the current system. Is that right?

It would be a step forward; it would be the incomplete step forward. It might be against your instinct to say, the best thing for us to do is nothing. But when we’re talking about low-level kids, their needs and their risks are somewhere else—again if we use the juvenile system as a catch-all tool, we’re going to do more damage than we help. The problems are bigger than that, they’re deeper than that, and we need a solution that’s big enough for the task.

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