Report: Kansas juvenile justice funds could run out by 2024

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas fund intended to help keep young people out of prison could be out of money by 2024 if spending and projected funding remains the same, according to the non-partisan legislative research department.

The Evidence-based Programs Fund grew out of a 2016 law designed to shift the focus in juvenile justice from incarceration to rehabilitation. The effort has had some success, with population at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex dropping 40% in five years.

With annual funding and savings from reduced costs for incarceration, the fund accumulated a $42 million reserve by this year, The Kansas City Star reported.

Facing the potential for COVID-19 related budget shortfalls, Gov. Laura Kelly this year asked the Legislature to transfer the entire $42 million to other state needs.

Lawmakers approved moving $21 million out of the account, despite a projected $1 billion surplus in the state budget approved last week.

Sam Coleman, a spokesman for Kelly, said last week that with annual appropriations, it’s unlikely the Department of Corrections will deplete the fund.

“This administration remains committed to working with the Legislature, local governments, and stakeholders to enhance our services for justice-involved youth. At current rates of spending, we anticipate the balance on this fund may continue to grow in the short term,” Coleman said.

Depleting the fund could damage existing programs and delay new projects, advocates say.

“This is going to be a bigger issue next year,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “Juvenile justice reform falls flat on its face if it doesn’t have the funding to provide the programs that are required.”

Current approved budgets allocate $14.3 million to the fund in 2021 and $12.5 in 2022. Savings from reduced correctional costs were only $54,000 in 2021 — a fraction of the millions transferred in previous years because fewer dollars were allocated for juvenile incarceration.

The Department of Corrections has slowly increased spending from the fund from $9.6 million in 2020 to budgeting $14.3 million in 2021 and $21.6 million in 2022.

The money goes to several initiatives, ranging from family engagement projects to mental health programs and grants to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of Topeka.

Jennings credits those programs for a decrease in juveniles incarcerated at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex — from 245 in 2016 to 147 in 2020.

“I’m afraid (loss in funding) will just turn things in the opposite direction,” Jennings said. “We’ll have more kids in the system, deeper in the system.”

Mike Fonkert, campaign director at Kansas Appleseed, said he doesn’t believe the corrections department will spend enough to deplete all funds by 2024. But he said removing half the reserves this year creates a frustrating barrier for new projects.

The Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which recommends expenditures, has considered building juvenile crisis intervention centers, expanding family preservation services and substance abuse counseling among other things. But no final decisions or expenditures have been made and none of the projects have been started.

Access to the full $42 million fund, Fonkert said, would have “softened the blow” to the state budget if the Department of Corrections approved the projects. He said the bureaucratic process is impeding the programs.

“The thing that sticks out as slowing this down is a lack of commitment among the Legislature and agency officials to make it a priority to get this money to communities,” he said.