Rubén Austria Speaks in Kansas


New law provides opportunity for change in Kansas juvenile justice, speaker says

Sep 20, 2016

How did the nation start spending more on punishing young offenders than on trying to give them opportunities that would have kept them from breaking the law in the first place?

The Rev. Ruben Austria, a nationally recognized expert on community-based alternatives to incarceration, answered that question and others for an audience of about 30 people at a juvenile justice community forum Tuesday evening at the Salina South High School auditorium.

Austria, of New York, joined a panel of Salina counselors and parents who discussed the opportunities made possible by Senate Bill 367, a new state law designed to provide funding for community-based solutions for at-risk young people with money that would have otherwise been spent incarcerating them.

“I want to encourage you as you go through the process of reforming your state, if you get the right community members together with the right system, I think you could really get to the place by 2050 that we have no kids in cages,” Austria said. “I think you guys are right on the point of doing it. I’m excited about your future.”

Matthew Conklin, advocate for Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center, said Salina is taking the lead on juvenile justice reform in Kansas.

Austria said the juvenile system became more about punishment and less about reform with a spike in juvenile crime in the mid-1990s. A Princeton professor who looked at the data predicted a fearful future for the nation: the rise of the juvenile “superpredator.”

Austria said the idea took root that within a decade there would be an epidemic of young crack addicts who grew up playing violent video games and were brutally remorseless and totally irredeemable. The nation started building juvenile detention facilities.

“If we heard this today, we would probably say, ‘Oh, that’s sensationalistic. It sounds kind of racist,’ “ said Austria, executive director of Community Connections for Youth.

But while statistics showed that the numbers of young offenders had started to fall back to normal levels, juvenile detention facilities already were under construction, Austria said. He said between 1992 and 1997, every state changed juvenile laws. Programs that once provided activities, employment, mentoring and other opportunities for young people were no longer funded, and much harsher juvenile sentencing laws were implemented that sent more young people into those detention facilities.

Austria said people of color were disproportionately targeted when more police resources were poured into their neighborhoods, resulting in more arrests. He said currently a white boy has a one in 17 chance of spending time in prison; a Latino boy has a one in six chance, and an African-American boy has a one in three chance of being incarcerated.

“Almost overnight it became just like the adult criminal justice system,” Austria said. Young offenders were being tried as adults at younger ages, and they received longer sentences.

However, incarcerating young offenders hasn’t worked. Austria said the costs are high — $250 a day for a young person to be housed in a juvenile correctional facility in Kansas — and it creates a young person who is more likely to reoffend.

Panel members talked about the possibility of offering struggling parents assistance with a problem child before that child becomes an offender, mediating conflicts, providing mentors and support for families so that kids can stay in their homes and about other grassroots possibilities to help kids develop skills that will make them successful in life.

Lakewood Middle School counselor Sarah Lancaster said that school is in the fourth year of developing proactive restorative practices similar to mediation processes that the Salina School District plans to implement in all secondary schools.

Austria said he has found that people who have made it through the juvenile justice system or navigated their children through it successfully are in high demand as mentors and coaches for families currently facing the ordeal.

“Parents feel isolated, they feel like they’re alone,” he said.

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