Juvenile Justice Reform Can Help Young People ‘Turn Their Lives Around’

  • November 02, 2018

Editor’s Recommendation

Juvenile Commitment Rate Falls by Half Nationally in 10 Years

by Jake Horowitz

Winter 2018

While a Kansas state senator, Greg Smith (R) championed a 2016 law that prioritizes out-of-home placements and intensive system responses for the highest-risk juveniles—and shifts resources toward evidence-based alternatives that allow youth to be supervised safely at home. Now a deputy sheriff in Johnson County, Smith chairs the Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which monitors implementation of the law. He serves as a distinguished adviser to Pew and is president of the Kelsey Smith Foundation, which he launched with his wife, Missey, in honor of their daughter, who was abducted and murdered in 2007.

How would you describe your position on criminal justice or juvenile justice in the past?

I’ve been a cop most of my adult life, so I’m sure my views were shaped by that. When I was out on the street, I was definitely a lock-’em-up kind of guy. That was what you did with people who broke the law, whether they were kids or adults: Remove them from society for the benefit of everybody else. Growing up, I had your typical “Beaver Cleaver” childhood, and I just developed certain strong views on the way the world worked. If you did something wrong, you were supposed to get arrested and go to jail. It made sense, and that’s what we did.

What were your early views on how youth confinement affects crime?

Before my election to the Legislature, I didn’t think or know much about it. That was a separate branch of the criminal justice system, and I had no real reason to look at outcomes or research. My traditional upbringing and 10 years in the Navy left me with the belief that you don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, and my experience as a patrol officer only hardened that perspective. I do remember how disheartened I would get when a call would come over the radio and, sure enough, it was little Johnny again doing the same old stuff. But I essentially viewed juveniles who commit crimes as smaller, younger criminals and believed the best way to control crime was to get them off the street.

Can you describe your views about juvenile justice today?

I’ve learned a lot and know a lot more than I used to. I’ve read a lot of evidence-based research that shows that for certain types of lower-level crimes, locking up kids can do more harm than good. I’ve also learned a lot about cognitive development in kids, and the fact is, adolescence doesn’t really end until age 25. Young people aren’t as able as adults to see the consequences their actions and behaviors might have.

Some of what I’ve learned came through working as a schoolteacher after my career as a police officer. What you see in the classroom is that at a certain point in life, kids are just totally self-centered; life is all about them and their peer group. And no matter what the teacher or mom or dad says, they are impulsive, and they’re going to make bad decisions sometimes. Crossing over to juvenile justice, I don’t believe we should condemn them or give up on them because of those bad decisions. On the other hand, they need to be accountable for their behavior. Overall, I’ve come to believe that locking up a kid for shoplifting or vandalism and mixing him with more serious offenders is a bad idea. It’s bad for the kid, it’s expensive for taxpayers, and it’s not the best approach for public safety.

What caused you to change your mind?

It started when I was elected to the Legislature and began hearing some of these other theories and views on juvenile crime. It was new to me, and honestly I took it all with a grain of salt. Initially I wasn’t seeing anything presented in any of my committees that convinced me that people had the answers to the key question: How do we change our approach and make things better?

Then I was appointed co-chair of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Workgroup in 2015. In the beginning, my mindset was: Here we go, this is just another touchy-feely thing to make everybody feel like they’re doing the right thing but it won’t make a bit of difference. What was really huge for me was the data on the adolescent brain, especially how long it takes for the prefrontal cortex—the decision-making part of the brain—to develop. That research and data on Kansas was convincing, and it all started to make sense.

Was there a moment when you realized that things had to change?

Not one moment. But during that six months with the work group, as we went over the data, heard presentations, met with all the stakeholders, I realized how reliant we were on out-of-home placements for all sorts of behavior. That’s when it came together for me, and I started taking a hard look at all the ridiculous things we were doing to kids in Kansas. One example would be a kid who commits maybe his second or third shoplifting offense and would be sent to a group home 100 miles away, with no support or family contact.

One of the most meaningful groups we heard from included parents of children who had committed crimes. Not a one of them was impressed with the juvenile justice system. I remember one father who recognized that his son had issues and was in the system for legitimate reasons, but who was frustrated because there seemed to be no end to it. We’d hear these stories of kids being sent hundreds of miles from home for six months, but then if a kid didn’t complete a program or broke a rule or something, the clock would restart and suddenly it’s 12 months. It seemed like there was a fundamental lack of fairness. It became obvious from what I was hearing and from the data that our approach simply wasn’t working.

What do you find most gratifying about the changes in Kansas’ juvenile justice system?

Out-of-home placements are way down, and that’s encouraging. We used to be very good at taking low-level, low-risk kids and locking them up. That wasn’t helping; it was only creating the next batch of adult criminals by exposing them to violent, high-risk offenders. Now we can intervene with kids early on to help them turn their lives around, avoid a future in the system, and become productive citizens.

Another big thing for me is the cost savings we’ve recouped here in Kansas. Because of the reduction in out-of-home placements, we’ve had several facilities close. In one year, we had about $12 million in savings, and for Kansas that is huge. The great part is we’ve turned around and reinvested that money to give grants to areas of our state that lack resources. The vast majority of our state is rural, and small-town Kansas needed help to develop programs and services for youth. The challenge is that rural areas don’t have the resources that the urban areas have. But savings from our reforms are being reinvested to address that gap. It’s a start.

The abduction and murder of your daughter Kelsey in 2007 was a major reason you ran for office and worked to improve the juvenile justice system. Talk about that and the foundation that bears her name.

After Kelsey was murdered, we worked to get the Kelsey Smith Act passed in Kansas in 2009. Our state now has one of the best missing person laws in the country, and it is easier to make a report of a missing person. At that point, I looked at my wife and said, ‘’I wonder what else we could accomplish if we were more involved in the political system.’’ Now 23 states have passed similar legislation, and the act was reintroduced on Missing Children’s Day—May 25, 2018—in both houses of Congress. So, my entire legislative career was based on that, and those issues are things I worked on with the most passion.

When we formed the Kelsey Smith Foundation, our overriding goal was to spread information that would help youth and young adults stay out of situations that put them at risk for kidnapping, sexual assault, or murder. So, we provide safety awareness seminars and other programs all across the country, and everything we do is evidence-based. The United Kingdom and Europe also have expressed interest in our work.

Any thoughts on next steps for juvenile justice improvements in Kansas?

There’s still more work to do. We have the oversight committee to guide us and our state advisory group.

No legislation is perfect the first time it goes through, and I think that as time goes on, we will continue to see things that need to be tweaked. As data comes in and we monitor and evaluate it, changes will be necessary to help us move forward.

But clearly what we were doing in the past, just tossing kids into group homes, didn’t work. The overwhelming theme in our work group’s review was that the juvenile justice system didn’t want to deal with kids. It was out of sight, out of mind. And that isn’t going to help anyone.

While a Kansas state senator, Greg Smith (R) championed a 2016 law that prioritizes out-of-home placements and intensive system responses for the highest-risk juveniles—and shifts resources toward evidence-based alternatives that allow youth to be supervised safely at home. Now a deputy sheriff in Johnson County, Smith chairs the Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which monitors implementation of the law. He serves as a distinguished adviser to Pew and is president of the Kelsey Smith Foundation, which he launched with his wife, Missey, in honor of their daughter, who was abducted and murdered in 2007.