By Edward M. Eveld

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday signed into law a major reform of the state's juvenile justice system, an overhaul meant to shift the focus from detention to treatment for many young offenders.

Calling it likely the state's premier piece of legislation in 2016, Brownback said at a ceremony outside the Johnson County Courthouse in Olathe that the new law was a practical, sensible reform that was smart on crime.

"Being smart on crime promotes public safety and the rehabilitation of youthful offenders so that they can become law-abiding citizens," Brownback said. "This bill does just that. 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."

The legislation won overwhelming and bipartisan support in the Kansas Legislature this session, a bright spot amid statehouse turmoil over budget shortfalls and a dire state Supreme Court ruling on school finance.

Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, and Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, shepherded the reform bill through the Legislature. They were on hand at the bill-signing Monday along with several other legislators, state corrections officials and representatives from juvenile justice advocacy groups.

The reform is intended to reduce the reliance on detention and other out-of-home placements for low-risk juvenile offenders. More low-level offenders would stay at home and participate in community-based educational, vocational and therapy programs. One focus would be drug and alcohol treatment.

Under the new law, the number of youth sent to out-of-home facilities is expected to drop by about 60 percent over five years. That would save about $72 million over that time, money to be reinvested in community-based programs.

Rubin and Smith said the changes are data-based, backed by solid research with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Smith called it "monumental" legislation that centers on the root causes of juvenile crime. Rubin said he had no doubt that the law will give troubled youth and their families a chance at better outcomes.

"And I also have no doubt as a result of this legislation that youth offender recidivism in Kansas will substantially decrease and it will make Kansas a safer and better place for all citizens," Rubin said.

But the reforms have drawn objections from the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association, a professional organization for prosecutors in the state.

In a statement Monday, the organization said aspects of the bill "undermine the discretion of the courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public." And the necessary funding has not been identified to support the "expansive agenda" of the bill, the association said.

A juvenile justice work group, headed by Rubin and Smith, began its study last summer and released recommendations in December. It found that although juvenile crime rates were down, the state had one of the highest rates of detention and out-of-home placements in the country. The group held roundtable discussions, reviewed research and received technical assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A growing proportion of youth in out-of-home placements were lower-level offenders, the group found. Out-of-home placements can cost up to $90,000 a year for each offender, more than 10 times the cost of probation. The system was not only costly, it didn't reduce recidivism or improve public safety, the work group concluded.

Besides the shift in focus to counseling and training for many juvenile offenders, the law sets new standards for case lengths, creates a juvenile justice oversight committee and increases training for juvenile justice personnel.

The 140-page bill, SB 367, passed unanimously in the Senate and won approval 118-5 in the House.

(c)2016 The Kansas City Star