Juvenile justice is a rapidly changing landscape in Kansas. With the passing of Senate Bill 367 in 2016, an incremental plan was put into effect with the ultimate goal of eliminating the utilization of juvenile detention centers statewide by 2019.
Already this year (as of Jan. 1) changes have been implemented statewide to limit instances of detention, including the development of enhanced pre-court diversion standards, improved detention standards and unified case planning across agencies.
By July 1, 2017, the state is also mandating revised post-adjudication sentencing practices and the development of memorandums of understanding between school districts and local stakeholders to guide referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. That is something Harvey County is already one step ahead on, as county attorney David Yoder noted those local stakeholders already have a good relationship.
"Harvey County is very ahead of the curve in that regard because we already have had a very strong community approach to handling our cases, juvenile offender cases in particular," Yoder said.
In an effort to create alternatives to juvenile detention and improve the way the state addresses juvenile offenders, the Kansas Department of Corrections launched the Functional Family Therapy (FFT) initiative statewide this month. That decision was made after a pilot program in southeast Kansas with contract partner Eckerd Kids saw 89 juvenile offenders enter FFT and just three placed in out of home settings during treatment in 2016, according to a release from the KDOC.
Cornerstones of Care will offer services—providing therapy and supervision in home—locally in Harvey County. Both KDOC and Cornerstones of Care also brought up the track record of FFT in other states in regards to its implementation in Kansas.
"With more than 40 years of experience and research behind it, we know Functional Family Therapy can positively influence the lives of youth in the context of strengthening their families," said chief program officer Stephen O'Neill.
Yoder sees the benefits of the FFT program, but he is also quick to point out the local juvenile justice system (made up of law enforcement, community corrections, district courts, etc.) has been seeking out alternatives to detention for years.
Started more than a decade ago, Yoder noted the Teen Court was already in existence when he began working for the county and has been a constant throughout his career. As an alternative to detention, if juvenile defendants and their families agree, the defendants will admit guilt — while also having a chance to respond to allegations — and face a jury of their peers (usually high school and middle school students) for sentencing. The sentencing can range from making restitutions to writing an apology to community service (i.e. serving on future Teen Courts), but never includes detention.
Like Teen Court, the diversion program (similar to that offered to adult offenders) has been offered to perpetrators in the juvenile justice system for several years, suspending prosecution in exchange for probation if all parties involved come to an agreement.
Additionally, with the upcoming changes in July, Yoder noted local stakeholders created another alternative put into effect January of this year.
With the help of Offender Victim Ministries, the local juvenile justice system was able to establish victim offender conferencing, in which the perpetrator sits down with a mediator and the victim (or a community representative standing in) to address the issues.
"You have to sit there, literally across the table from someone representing who's been victimized in the case to actually see and understand what it is that they've done and how this affects the community," Yoder said.
Recidivism rates are not known for the newer conferencing program, but Yoder did say they are very low for youth offenders who take part in the other programs. To be eligible for any of the alternatives, Yoder noted his office must be prepared to file the case in juvenile court—with the potential for detention both pre and post-trial.
Offenders can be held for up to 72 hours prior to their case being heard, but that too could be changing, along with the prosecution of juvenile offenders. Full amendments to the juvenile justice system through the law can be viewed at www.kslegislature.org.
According to the KDOC, the state detained 219 juvenile offenders in fiscal year 2016, while more than 1,500 were managed outside of a prison setting. That makes alternatives to detention a necessity, while their cost effectiveness and recidivism data —with reductions of 25 to 60 percent in some cases for other states utilizing FFT—also have the KDOC looking to make them more prevalent.
Keeping juvenile offenders in their homes is the ultimate goal, with exceptions made in some extreme cases, but it is those very exceptions that is of concern to Yoder, given the patterns he has seen emerge in juvenile crime.
"It's very disturbing in the sense that we are seeing younger and younger kids committing more and more serious crimes, and repetitive, increasingly serious crimes," Yoder said, "while at the same time having a statute passed that's increasingly tying our hands and restricting the number of things we can do to protect the community."
Harvey County Sheriff Chad Gay has some concerns as well. While he hasn't been as heavily involved in the process as Yoder, he also sees issues with keeping juvenile offenders in home if they have committed serious crimes.
"I guess it just depends on where they draw the line and when they make the decision," Gay said.
Last year, the county attorney's office filed more than 170 cases (of which offenders were eligible for detention), but Yoder noted that is not even close to the number of offenders who went through the juvenile justice system, since they do not include the individuals who participated in the alternative programs like Teen Court.
Yoder understands the push to eliminate detention in juvenile cases and protecting youth offenders, but he is also concerned with protecting victims and other members of the community. He did note there is potential for this legislation to be reviewed before the final changes are implemented (especially given the recent turnover in the state legislature), but no matter what the members of the juvenile justice system will continue to do their jobs.
"We're going to comply with whatever the statutes require us to comply with because that's our job," Yoder said. "That's what we've always done and that's what we'll always do and our community will come together to find a way to make it work."