Nonprofit report calls for closing last juvenile prison, keep kids out of system

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The number of Kansas teens incarcerated has been falling for several years thanks to reforms enacted in 2016.

Incarcerating young Kansans is more costly and inhumane than providing community services, education and mentoring to keep them out of the juvenile justice system, according to a new report by a nonprofit pushing the state to shutter its last juvenile prison.

Kansas-based Progeny, which focuses on juvenile justice reform, released a report Thursday outlining steps it believes lawmakers should take to close the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex and instead invest in programs and resources to keep minors out of the correctional system. The complex housed, on average, 138 kids at a time during the state’s last fiscal year. 

“The prisons we have now, they’re just meant to hold our young people,” said Jazmine Rogers, a youth leader with Progeny. “They’re meant to be dehumanizing. They’re not meant to focus on how do we restore this young person, how do we prepare this young person to re-enter their community?” 

Kansas has worked in recent years to reform its juvenile correctional system. In 2016, it passed a sweeping reform bill that closed a youth prison in Larned and earmarked money for programs to keep kids out of the system. But there’s more work to be done, Progeny says. 

This year, Kansas cut more than $20 million from its funds earmarked for community intervention programs. 

Progeny made the case that closing the KJCC and, instead, investing in prevention programs would be far less expensive. Beyond that, said Nichole Lee, campaign manager for Progeny, incarcerating young people is really harmful. 

“I do think if we were able to close that facility, we could really talk about preventative measures,” Lee said. 

The report comes just over a week ahead of the Kansas Legislature’s next Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight. 

Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who serves as vice-chair of that committee, noted the legislature’s effort had successfully reduced the number of incarcerated children but said there was more work to do. She said money the state set aside for prevention programs hadn’t been used as effectively as legislators hoped. 

“The goal has always been to reduce the incarceration level, which it has done,” Baumgardner said. “But has it helped to really resolve the issues? I don’t know that anyone is comfortable saying, ‘Yep, it’s at the mark that we want.’” 

‘A very heavy experience’

According to the report, Kansas’ correctional system took in more than 11,700 young people between July 2020 and June 2021, which includes both juvenile delinquency cases and “child in need of care” cases, in which children don’t have adequate care or are abused or neglected. That’s down from more than 15,500 five years ago. 

But still, incarcerating young people is ineffective, the report says. Young people who are housed in a juvenile facility have a high risk of recidivism. 

Tyler Williams, an organizer with Progeny, said he was in the now-shuttered Larned youth prison and KJCC as a teen. 

“As a literal child who went into the system and came out as a grown man, it was very difficult mentally, emotionally, spiritually,” Williams said. “It was a very heavy experience. I suffer from PTSD from a lot of the experiences in juvie.”

The report also notes that Black children are disproportionately incarcerated compared to their white peers. 

Alternatives to incarceration

Progeny suggests Kansas look to other states, including Missouri, for models. 

Missouri, according to the report, has moved away from traditional incarceration in favor of smaller facilities with extensive services closer to young people’s homes and communities. 

Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Initiative suggests exhausting all less-restrictive options before incarcerating a young person and raising the minimum age for detention from 10 to 13. 

The report says home care and confinement should be prioritized, and incarceration should remain a last resort. Rather than such a large, centralized youth prison, the state should have small centers with no more than 10 beds, the report suggests. 

Baumgardner said there was serious talk last year about doing that and transitioning the KJCC to house adult women. That would alleviate overcrowding at the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only prison for women. 

That would allow kids to be closer to home and receive more help, such as education and career training, she said. 

Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat, said she’d like to see the KJCC closed and replaced with more community-based programs.

“I just think it’s going to take more time and resources to make it a success,” Finney said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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