Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series focusing on juvenile crime in Harvey County.

 

Despite the number of juvenile arrests increasing in Harvey County, only a fraction of the youths who commit crimes ever see the inside of a detention facility.

"I've seen a substantial increase in serious crimes by juveniles," said Harvey County Attorney David Yoder. "At the same time, the Legislature decided we needed to be easier on juveniles — we need to focus on putting the kids back at home and not prosecuting them and creating criminal records."

"A lot of times, the parent thinks if they're arrested, they're going to jail. That's not always the case, unless it's warranted," said Janet Cagle, director of Harvey/McPherson Counties Community Corrections.

Kansas' juvenile justice code statutes were revised in 2017.

"A lot of it has remained the same, but there was some substantial rewriting about how we handle cases," Yoder said. "(For) the vast majority of juvenile cases, under the new statutes, we're not even authorized to file juvenile offender charges."

"It would be so nice to be able to say, 'If you get picked up with marijuana, this will happen,' but you don't know," Cagle said. "One kid, he may go through district court and be placed on probation with court services, or he could come through here in the diversion program."

What happens when a juvenile commits a crime varies depending on the severity of the offense.

For minor offenses, such as curfew violations or misdemeanors, a juvenile is given a notice to appear.

"(Police) can write them that ticket, the parent comes to get them and takes them home with them and then the parent or juvenile has a certain length of time to call us at Community Corrections," Cagle said.

When they call in, juveniles are given an appointment with juvenile intake at the law enforcement center in Newton.

In juvenile intake, workers perform a mental health assessment and ask the juvenile for details about their home life to give the county attorney as much information as they can about their history and situation.

For more serious offenses, a juvenile who is arrested is taken directly to meet with a juvenile intake worker.

The level of the crime, previous criminal behavior, whether there were victims involved and other factors figure into whether the juvenile is then released into the custody of a parent or sent to detention. If their home circumstances are not good, the juvenile may be placed in a group home as a child in need of care.

When a parent is called to pick up their child, they have to bring a photo ID to prevent the juvenile from being released to another family member or friend or going back into the hands of a human trafficker.

The county attorney's office decides whether to drop the criminal charges against a juvenile, send them to Community Corrections to be placed on probation, let them go through a diversion program or place them in detention to await trial.

If a juvenile is put on probation, a risk needs assessment is performed to determine what their risk is for reoffending. Factors taken into account include a juvenile's companions and how involved their parents are in their lives.

"That risk assessment tells us how often we should supervise them (and) how much supervision we should give them," Cagle said.

Those considered low risk may report in once a month, while those deemed a high risk may be required to come in once a week.

The restrictions of probation include not using drugs or alcohol and maintaining school attendance.

"They come in and sign an agreement that they won't have any further law enforcement contact and they are released (from probation) in four to six months," Cagle said.

Juveniles who commit minor offenses or who are not repeat offenders may go through one of two intervention programs.

"Both of (the intervention programs) have very good success rates. Very few of the people who go through them are repeat offenders," Yoder said.

"We have a lots of successes, but we have a lot of failures, too, when the kids or adults just won't change their behavior," Cagle said.

In teen court, juveniles — some of whom may be serving on the mock jury as part of their own community service — listen to an offender's case and impose sentences that can include community service, restitution or letters of apology.

"It's not a trial. The juvenile offender has to be willing to participate in it," Yoder said.

Another option for juvenile offenders is to participate in a program led by Offender/Victim Ministries in which they meet with the victim of their crime — or a proxy community member — and listen to them explain how their actions affected them.

Their parents can decide whether the child will participate in one of the intervention programs. Some parents are supportive of the process, while others push for a court trial.

"We've had parents who, by refusing to cooperate or negotiate, end up pushing the kid into having a criminal record because the parents will not let the kid plead to something or take some alternative to prosecution," Yoder said. "There have been cases where myself and the defense attorney for the juvenile are in agreement with a particular deal on a juvenile case and the kid is fine with it, but the parents absolutely refuse and actually force the case into a trial."

If a juvenile violates probation or does not follow through with the intervention program, their case can be referred back to the county attorney's office to determine if all previous criminal charges should be prosecuted in court.

"We can go back and prosecute them because, obviously, these programs were not successful so we can elevate it up and then file juvenile offender charges," Yoder said.

A juvenile who commits a serious offense is placed in detention for a day or two.

"Within 48 hours of taking a kid into detention, we have to have a hearing in front of a judge," Yoder said. "It's kind of like a first appearance (or) a bond appearance for an adult."

The odds of the juvenile returning to detention are slim.

"It has to be a pretty serious offense, with pretty serious odds of ongoing criminal behavior and endangerment, for us to keep somebody in detention for any length of time. Otherwise, they're out within 48 hours," Yoder said.

Cases that have to be heard in court can take months — or years — to come to trial.

"It seems like the court system is just slow. It's bogged down," Cagle said. "It could be months and months before anything's ever done with that youth. We've had kids go off to college without anything being done and then we get the case for a diversion, but the kid's not even here."

Victims of crimes committed by juveniles rarely get any restitution. The offenders can be asked to pay for any damage they caused but since they are minors, it is not enforceable.

"The reality is victim's rights are just ignored by this whole statute," Yoder said.

The changes in juvenile prosecuting statutes did not go unnoticed by those under 18.

"It was amazing how quickly kids picked up on this," Yoder said. "Word was getting around — 'You can't do anything to us. We can do whatever we want.' "

Yoder said police officers in Newton told him how high school students told them to save themselves the hassle of arresting them.

"The kids have basically laughed at them and said, 'We'll just be right back here and you can't do anything, so why are you even bothering with hassling me and taking me into custody because I'll just be right back and nothing's going to happen.' They picked up really quickly that our teeth have been taken out by this statute and we're basically a toothless dog growling at them," Yoder said.