Kansas Finds New Opportunities in Juvenile Justice Reform

Posted by Mike Dempsey
September 01, 2017

 In 2016, Kansas passed legislation designed to comprehensively improve its juvenile justice system. Among the most dramatic shifts, the legislation narrowed the use of out-of-home placements and required all savings from bed reduction to be redirected toward evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism, promote accountability,

and demonstrate better outcomes for young people. As Kansas works to implement this transformative juvenile justice legislation, Department of Corrections (KDOC) officials are proactively pushing to improve outcomes not only for juvenile justice youth but also for their employees.

The 2016 legislation grew out of the bipartisan Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup, composed of representatives of all state government branches and other key system stakeholders.  For six months, with technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice, the group analyzed its juvenile system from top to bottom – and found what they considered substantial geographic inconsistency in outcomes, lack of appropriate system responses statewide, and an out-of-home population made up largely of lower-level youth.  To address some of the system’s challenges, the group developed a set of data-driven, research-based recommendations that became the basis for Senate Bill 367 (2016), which the legislature passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. 

In the short time since the state began implementing the reforms Kansas has already seen significant shifts in its out-of-home population.  The statewide month-end detention population fell from 123 in July 2016 to 89 in March 2017, and during the same period, the group home population dropped from 145 to 83.  Already well below capacity at 79 youth in June of 2016, and in anticipation of further declines, in July of 2016 the state announced the decision to close one of its two juvenile correctional facilities.  The Larned Juvenile Correctional Facility, which was funded to operate 128 beds, closed March 3, 2017.  State officials attribute these changes both to fewer young people being sent out of home, and to declining recidivism bringing fewer young people back into custody.  The reductions in placements and corresponding closure have created approximately $12 million in savings for the state to shift to evidence-based services. 

With the re-allocated funds from reduced bed use, KDOC has expanded evidence-based programs statewide, both through regional and statewide contracts, and local grants. Programs like Functional Family Therapy (FFT) are now available statewide. For eligible youth and their families, FFT provides three to four months of weekly, intensive in-home counseling.  That counseling incorporates development of skills like communication, conflict resolution, and effective parenting.  The new FFT program, which includes three providers covering separate regions of the state, launched the month before the Larned facility’s closure.  A regional pilot program that ran during the prior year provided FFT to 89 young people. 

While legislation required KDOC to focus on most effectively serving the needs of Kansas’ youth, the department placed simultaneous and special emphasis on serving its staff. Officials including Secretary of Corrections Joseph Norwood and Former Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Services Terri Williams hosted a closing ceremony at the facility, along with cake and a balloon release, to express their appreciation to staff.  And, most importantly, by the time Larned shuttered its doors, KDOC had taken significant strides towards ensuring that its roughly 140 employees would have a job moving forward.

While staff at Larned supported and prepared each other for closure with resume building and mock interviews, KDOC took proactive steps to help every Larned employee find a new job. For those who wanted to stay local, KDOC helped staff transition to two nearby state facilities, an adult prison and a hospital, where they received accelerated specialized training to smooth the transition.  KDOC also transferred eight Larned positions to its state office to support new training and fidelity-monitoring efforts for evidence-based juvenile programs system-wide.  Other positions were transferred to the state’s remaining juvenile correctional facility in Topeka to bring its staffing levels into compliance with federal requirements. 

The closure of the Larned facility, and the focus on employee retention and skill development, stands as an exceptionally positive accomplishment of Kansas’s efforts to monitor and improve its juvenile justice system. 

Written by Elizabeth Compa, Esq.,
Senior Associate, Public Safety Performance Project