KS juvenile justice reformers decry cuts

Lawmakers decided to divert $21 million away from juvenile justice efforts in Kansas, and advocates are not pleased.



August 27, 2021 - 2:12 PM

TOPEKA — Juvenile justice reformers pleaded for reversal of a decision by Kansas lawmakers to divert $21 million earmarked for community intervention programs and recommended allocation of more funding to innovative grassroots organizations involved in projects to diminish incarceration of children.

“Bureaucratic roadblocks remain to fully implementing many important supports and services for young people in local communities,” said Mike Fonkert, of the nonprofit advocacy organization Kansas Appleseed. “We must highlight the voices and experiences of directly impacted people.”

Fonkert participated in an online forum Thursday amid the five-year anniversary of a Kansas law setting in motion a reform movement to identify and finance alternatives to young people being sent to prison. The idea of Senate Bill 367 was to slash the number of people incarcerated at the Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka — numbers have fallen about 50% — and do away with warehousing of young offenders at residential care facilities.

State government budget savings from the transition were to be funneled into community programs serving needs of children who tumbled into the justice system. The 2021 Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly, however, agreed to transfer half of $42 million in the Juvenile Justice Improvement Fund to other budget priorities.

The panel discussion was sponsored by Progeny, a Wichita youth and adult partnership focused on reimagining the juvenile justice system. The consensus was that fewer Kansas youth were behind bars, but racial and ethnic disparities persist in out-of-home placements. There was a sense gutting the reform fund threatened existing community-based programs and could delay new projects.

“Translating those intentions into reality and getting over the bureaucratic hurdles … has proven to be a really difficult task,” Fonkert said.

Francine Sherman, a clinical professor at Boston College who works on detention issues of girls and young women for National Crittenton, said the past five years revealed the Kansas law’s mandate to concentrate on evidence-based programs had undercut opportunities to support new promising initiatives. The criteria ought to be modified to include grassroots programs for which research hasn’t yet been conducted, she said.

“I’d love to see it amended to be a little broader in terms of the kinds of programs that would qualify for those funds,” she said. “It’s a national problem. It’s not just something Kansas is encountering.”

Bryce Graham, co-founder of the ITC Launchpad organization that offers mentoring to at-risk youth in Wichita, said the greatest challenge to the work was lack of financial resources. At the same time, he said, it was difficult for smaller organizations to make application for juvenile justice grants.

“It takes resources to get resources,” Graham said. “I get frustrated on a regular basis with the processes. We know where the resources need to go.”

Alexander Schneider, manager of youth justice initiatives with the Columbia Justice Center in New York, said one pitfall of reform campaigns was that not all the right people get invited to the table at the outset. He said the funding stream didn’t have to focus exclusively on evidence-based proposals.

“Why are we trying to standardize everything across the country?” Schneider said.

Yusef Presley, a Wichita resident with Progeny, said he understood the isolation, neglect and instability of living in more than 100 foster homes and being part of the juvenile justice system. He referred to the system as a foster care-to-prison pipeline.

Young people who have been impacted by out-of-home placements or incarceration should play a larger role in determining how Kansas invests the juvenile justice reform money, he said.

“I feel like it’s my duty to give back to my community,” Presley said. “There are some youth just like me that have been overlooked and taken advantage of by this system. It’s time for them to be heard and valued.”