Virginia Hoft spent Thursday driving from her office in Johnson County to Geary County to set up a youth advocate program — part of an ambitious slate of juvenile justice reforms passed last year.
As she drove back through Topeka, legislators on the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee were having a roundtable discussion about how much they want to change last year’s bill.
The general consensus: Hoft and others like her should keep doing what they’re doing.
Legislators are considering tweaks to last year’s law — including rolling back some of the more ambitious deadlines that have people like Hoft scrambling to set up diversion and rehabilitation programs for youths age 10 to 17.
But there’s little appetite for large-scale changes, despite some continued concerns from sections of the state’s legal community.
Last year’s bill was the result of more than a year of study by a juvenile justice workgroup and was spearheaded by two veteran legislators — Rep. John Rubin and Sen. Greg Smith — who aren’t back this year. It passed by overwhelming margins.
Rep. Eric Smith, a Republican from Burlington and one of several new legislators on the committee this session, echoed the comments of colleagues who said they didn’t feel comfortable overhauling it.
“Those who worked on this obviously had a deep understanding of the whole process, the whole industry if you will,” said Smith, a sheriff’s deputy. “(They knew) how it works, why the changes are there, while the rest of us are trying to play catch-up.”
The reforms are designed to provide rehabilitation services for juvenile offenders closer to their families and communities rather than in prisons or group homes that studies show often cause more problems than they solve.
They also stripped prosecutors and judges of some discretion in charging and sentencing juveniles, and those groups opposed the changes from the start.
With a new-look Legislature elected in November, some members of the legal community tried to restart the debate over the larger bill in meetings last month with Rep. Russ Jennings, the new chairman of the corrections committee, and Rep. Blaine Finch, an attorney on the committee.
“Those conversations frankly started with, ‘We just want you to repeal the bill,’” said Jennings, a Republican from Lakin. “That was some people’s offer of a starting point: Just repeal it.”
Jennings declined to say specifically who asked for the bill to be repealed.
Instead of considering that, the committee is looking at more than a dozen amendments through House Bill 2264, some of which would actually take last year’s reforms further and some that would roll them back at the edges.
Jennings said the most substantial change under consideration is a provision allowing judges to sentence juveniles to prison any time they use a gun during a crime that would be a felony if they were charged as adults.
Under last year’s bill, that sentencing flexibility depends on the projected risk the offender poses.
Don Hymer, a Johnson County prosecutor speaking on behalf of the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association, called that an “unintended consequence” of the bill.
Prosecutors in urban areas might be more inclined to view the presence of a firearm as an aggravating factor.
“There are different challenges in each county,” Hymer said. “There are different dangers in each county.”
Hymer also said last year’s bill, while encouraging diversion and rehabilitations programs, mandated a one-size-fits-all approach to them that could force counties to scuttle programs that are working well.
He pointed to a voluntary, peer-run “Youth Court” in Johnson County as an example.
Rep. Annie Kuether, a Democrat from Topeka, said her home county has a similar program under threat.
Benet Magnuson is the executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit that seeks to reform the justice system on behalf of underrepresented populations. His group supported last year’s bill and is closely monitoring the changes proposed this year.
He said the same rigorous study that went into last year’s bill should be put into the amendments and cautioned against allowing a “justice by geography” in which offender’s sentences depend more on their home county than their offense.
“The incredible amount of discretion the old juvenile justice code provided is a large part of what led us to the big problems that required the state to address a broken juvenile justice system,” Magnuson said.
The new juvenile justice system prioritizes a variety of diversion and rehabilitation programs. Hoft’s program, for example, matches juvenile offenders with adult advocates within their communities.
The advocates work with the at-risk offenders who are heading home after incarceration. They help with things like getting a driver’s license, earning a general equivalency degree or obtaining treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems.
“One of the things that research shows is if a young person has at least one adult in their life that believes in them, affirms them, hears them and really advocates for them, that that can be very much a protective factor,” Hoft said.
Hoft said offenders who participated in Youth Advocate Programs in other states were less likely to reoffend than those who didn’t.
Under the previous Kansas system, some of the offenders would have been sent to group homes, which had no effect — or even a negative effect — on recidivism rates.
“One kid that’s kind of on the right track is not gonna pull nine that aren’t,” Hoft said. “But nine that aren’t wanting to change will definitely pull the one that does. Group situations are really tough.”
They also proved pretty expensive, with out-of-home placements costing the state an average of $89,000 per juvenile offender each year. And they weren’t particularly secure: 36 percent of kids in group homes went AWOL at least once in 2014.
Last year’s bill drastically reduces the number of beds in group homes and seeks to gradually funnel the savings into programs like Hoft’s.
In the meantime, the Legislature appropriated $2 million in “bridge money” last year despite tough budget times. Hoft is using a slice of it to hire part-time youth advocates throughout eastern Kansas.
One of the major concerns for opponents of last year’s bill was that the group homes would close and the money saved wouldn’t find its way to the community-based programs.
Jennings said so far that hasn’t been the case and the savings are actually flowing in ahead of schedule.
“It’s the only funding in the state that I believe is not an issue,” Jennings said.
Hoft’s program started its first placements in October. The four-month program only recently had its first graduates.
She said it’s too early to draw broad conclusions about its success rate, but what she’s seen so far is similar to other states: Juveniles with substance abuse problems are particularly hard to keep on the right track, but there are some unqualified successes.
She pointed to one early placement of a Johnson County juvenile who was estranged from his father and his paternal grandparents.
The juvenile told his advocate that he wanted to reconnect with his grandparents, and his advocate helped break down his mother’s resistance and then went with him to the first visit.
“Now what happens is that young person has more people in his corner to support him,” Hoft said.
Jennings’ committee also is considering five amendments brought by David McKune and Kathleen Harnish-McKune on behalf of their 15-year-old son.
The couple said their son was falsely accused of pulling a fire alarm at his Olathe high school and then badgered into a confession by the school resource officer and administrators who interrogated him without his parents present.
Their son was exonerated hours later when a witness pointed the finger at another student and administrators confirmed that account with security camera footage.
As a result, Harnish-McKune, a consultant to former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and McKune, a former warden of Lansing Correctional Facility, are pushing for several juvenile justice changes, most involving schools.
They include allowing students under 18 to have parents present when questioned by school resource officers and requiring increased training for those officers, as well as restricting when law enforcement can create a database entry of juveniles that includes their fingerprints and mugshots.
Harnish-McKune said she and her husband considered taking their son’s school district to court, but they knew the Legislature was discussing changes to juvenile justice laws and decided that was a better route.
“Both our lives have been about public service,” Harnish-McKune said. “Why would we choose to sue when because of our positions and who we are we could make change for a greater number of youths than just our son?”
The committee is also considering a number of amendments tightening regulations for “absconders” or juvenile offenders who skip out on their rehabilitation programs.
Those generally have been well-received by legislators. But other proposals related to the division of labor between the judicial branch and the Kansas Department of Corrections in setting up the new juvenile justice system drew sharp rebukes from Finch and Jennings about “bureaucratic turf wars.”
Jennings said the bill was big enough that such disputes were to be expected, but the Legislature doesn’t want to be in the middle of them.
“I think we’ll find a way to resolve their questions between one another and keep things on track and consistent,” Jennings said.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.