SHAWNEE, Kan. — For nearly a year, the KSHB 41 I-Team has been digging deeper into the juvenile justice system in Kansas.
VOICE FOR EVERYONE | Share your voice with KSHB 41’s Cameron Taylor
We found families who said it’s a broken system, a prosecutor who claimed it has no teeth and a former judge who defended the system.
In the middle of our reporting, Kansas lawmakers passed a bill they hope brings improvement.
“The loss of a life is irreparable. You can’t replace it. You can’t fix it. You can’t sprinkle fairy dust on it and bring him back. There is no cure,” said Jody Blohm, Rogers’ mother.
The oldest teen charged, an 18-year-old at the time, had a long juvenile record. Through our reporting, we found Fernando Reyes-Lara was on probation just two months before Rogers' death.
THE NIGHT JAROD WAS SHOT
Nov. 30, 2022, constantly occupies the minds of Rusty and Jody Blohm.
“This happened on my birthday, and he’s always the last call of the night on my birthday,” said Rusty Blohm, Jarod Rogers’ stepfather.
The birthday call Rusty was expecting from Rogers never happened. Instead, the family got a knock on the door from a police officer.
“He said, 'I had to come to tell you that your son Jarod has been involved in a violent crime.' That’s all they would tell me,” Jody said.
Police said Rogers had been shot and left in the parking lot behind a Shawnee restaurant. His family rushed to the hospital.
The doctor’s news still haunted Jody when the I-Team spoke with her this past summer.
“She says, 'I don’t know how to tell you this. There’s nothing more we can do for your son.' My heart just stopped,” Jody said.
FIVE TEENAGERS CHARGED
Days after the shooting, prosecutors charged five teens in Jarod’s death, including Fernando Reyes-Lara.
Court documents obtained by the I-Team detailed the teens' plot to rob a man during a marijuana deal, which turned deadly.
“This case kind of epitomizes the frustration of a lack of accountability for juvenile offenders,” said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.
In Rogers' case, Howe charged four juveniles and then-18-year-old Reyes-Lara. The I-Team discovered he had a long criminal record as a minor.
Reyes-Lara pleaded guilty seven times to charges like marijuana possession (age 14) escalating to firearm possession by a felon (age 17).
Throughout the course of his time in the system, he spent nearly two months in the juvenile detention center and two days in adult detention. The rest was probation.
Howe said it wasn’t enough to stop the cycle.
“We create these situations where we see, in this instance, a person has multiple violations in the juvenile system, and then they graduate to adult status and they’re continuing to re-offend, and, in these instances, committing even more serious offenses,” Howe said.
DA BLAMES SENATE BILL 367 FOR JUVENILE JUSTICE PROBLEMS
Howe blames Senate Bill 367, passed by Kansas lawmakers in 2016, for issues with the juvenile justice system.
The law’s intent was to reduce the number of children behind bars by keeping them with their families instead.
However, Howe said the law made it more difficult to report and hold dangerous young offenders accountable.
“I will tell you, I’ve had probation officers come up to me and say kids laugh at us because there’s no accountability. There’s no consequences,” Howe said.
The I-Team reached out to Robert Sullivan, director of Johnson County’s Department of Corrections. He backed up Howe.
“As a result of the reforms codified with the passing of SB 367, provisions in the law regarding sanctions have limited our officers' ability to respond to probation violations, and juveniles have let our officers know they are aware of these limitations,” Sullivan said in a statement to the I-Team.
Point blank, Howe said he does not think the current system works. In 2022, 60% of the people charged with murder in Johnson County were juveniles.
“If there’s no consequences for bad action, you create really a bigger problem for yourself, and that’s what we’ve done in our juvenile justice system,” Howe said.
FORMER JUDGE ON SB 367
Former Kansas District Judge Thomas Foster, who served the 10th Judicial District, disagreed with Howe.
“I do believe there’s consequences,” Foster said.
He presided over a juvenile offender docket in Johnson County for nearly a decade.
“In my career as a judge, my part in shutting down our group homes, our juvenile justice group homes, I think I’m more proud of that than anything I did as a judge,” Foster said.
Foster was on the committee that developed and recommended SB 367. The committee spent more than a year reviewing the entire juvenile justice system in Kansas.
“Repeat misdemeanor offenders, the kids that you felt like you couldn’t get control of, you sent them off to a group home,” Foster said.
The judge pointed to studies showing group homes were not the answer.
A 2022 report indicates his committee’s changes were working overall. The number of children placed in the state's juvenile correctional facility has decreased by 68% since 2013.
During our investigation, the I-Team reviewed Reyes-Lara's juvenile records with Foster. It’s a name he remembers.
“When you’re seeing probation like six months here, nine months there. I mean, is that working?,” KSHB 41 Investigator Cameron Taylor asked.
“In most cases, yes,” Foster replied.
But Jarod Rogers' mom disagreed, pointing to Reyes-Lara's criminal record as a minor.
“My God. Why didn’t somebody stop him before now?” Jody said.
STATE LAWMAKERS PASS CHANGES TO JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Just this past legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill to address concerns raised by critics of SB 367.
Rep. Stephen Owens (R-Hesston) is the chairman of the Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.
“We’re adding consequences back into the system,” Owens said.
He explained the biggest issues with SB 367.
“The biggest issues are that there is a group of juveniles in there that really learned how to exploit the system,” Owens said.
Under the legislation that went into effect in July, case lengths can now be extended. Probation can also continue if a juvenile does not fulfill the terms of their probation.
Communication is now required between the Kansas Department of Corrections, the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.
Still, some young offenders may receive detention.
“We have to recognize that there are some that are those repeat offenders that simply need time in detention, possibly to recognize where they need to change and receive that very intensive treatment that can only come when they’re in detention,” Owens said.
Such changes are welcomed by DA Howe, Judge Foster and Jarod Rogers’ family.
“If they’re repeat offenders, I believe there has to be more consequences,” said Rusty Blohm, Rogers' stepfather.
REMEMBERING JAROD ROGERS
Jody and Rusty Blohm have attended every court appearance tied to their son’s death, in all five cases.
It’s a three-hour drive round trip.
“So there’s always a court date," Rusty said. "There’s always a notification that this got postponed, this one’s getting pushed out, something is happening with this. You know what I mean?"
While the court hearings will eventually fade away, the Blohms said Rogers' memory will not.
At least three times a day, Jody said she listens to her son's voicemail.
“That was my first kid. He’s the one that taught me to take care of the rest of them,” Jody said.
Searching for solace, she keeps Rogers close by in an urn, symbolizing he’ll always be part of the family.
“It’s quiet. Too quiet," Rusty said. "Just like there’s a hole missing."
One day, Jody and Rusty said they may be able to forgive the teens charged in their son's death.
Reyes-Lara's case is expected to go to trial in February.
“We would first like to send our best wishes to the family. There’s nothing I can say to make sense of their loss," Gregory Watt, Reyes-Lara's attorney, said in a statement. "I will, however, say this: There is much more to this case than what meets the eye and I look forward to our day in Court because we have a much stronger defense than what the State gives us credit for. The vast majority of trials we take on end up in acquittals, so we look forward to proving that this case, too, can be won.”
As for the other four teens, one pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery. The other three are going through the legal system.