Treating kids like criminals just makes criminals. Kansas finally gets it.
Kansas Senate Bill 367 is a big deal.
Kansas has a major juvenile justice problem on its hands.
With more than 200 centers housing troubled youth across the state, Kansas has an abnormally high rate of young repeat offenders and a high rate of courts removing kids from their homes to stay in such facilities, KMBC 9 News reported. Those two facts could have something to do with one another (which actually makes a lot of sense).
That's why Senate Bill 367 — heralded as "the state’s premier piece of legislation in 2016" — is actually a big deal.
Senate Bill 367 prioritizes treatment and rehabilitation over punishment for many juvenile offenders in hopes it will keep kids from becoming criminals down the road.
Under the law, low-level offenders — kids who aren't considered a threat to public safety — will be less likely to be sentenced to a juvenile center for probation violations, according to The Topeka-Capital Journal. Instead, they'll stay with their families and participate in community programs that provide services like counseling and therapy.
Throughout the next five years, the number of kids sent to out-of-home facilities for their offenses will drop roughly 60%, The Kansas City Star reported. That will save the state about $72 million over that time period — funds that will be redirected toward the community programs.
"Being smart on crime promotes public safety and the rehabilitation of youthful offenders so that they can become law-abiding citizens," said Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed the bill into law on April 11, 2016. "The legislation aligns our juvenile justice system with what the research shows works best to reduce victimization, keep families strong, and guide youth towards a better path."
Brownback is right — research has shown treatment over incarceration has better long-term effects for individuals and communities alike. So why aren't more states on board?
Detention centers are harmful to kids and make it less likely that kids who spend time there will become successful, stable adults. That affects all of us.
According to a report from the Justice Policy Institute, juvenile detention centers can have "a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment." The nonprofit points out these centers can increase rates of depression and suicide among youth, and reduce their ability to retain a job after leaving.
What's more, juvenile centers — like the larger U.S. justice system — disproportionately harm minorities: Even when they commit the same crimes as their white counterparts, black and brown youth are more likely to be detained.
On the other hand, there's plenty of research suggesting that treatment and rehabilitation services are successful at reducing recidivism, the act of falling back into criminal behavior, for adult and youth offenders alike.
Let's hope more state and federal officials take a hint from Kansas and prioritize the long-term wellbeing of our youth.
"The justice system, and therefore, policymakers, need to focus on the root causes of incarceration and on rehabilitation — not just punishment en masse," prisons reform author Christopher Zoukis wrote for The Huffington Post, noting our "youth can change and learn" before going too far down the wrong path.
"Kansas is taking steps in the right direction."