By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Things are getting a bit cramped in Kansas prisons.
At last count, the Kansas Department of Corrections said Sunflower State penitentiary facilities are overbooked to the tune of about 74 inmates. The figure jumps to an overage of 127 if we’re just looking at adult male prisons.
Yet, Kansas simultaneously spends gobs of money each year to incarcerate 1,724 men and women whose most serious crime is a drug-related offense. Just how much does the state shell out to lock up these non-violent offenders?
It’s a little more than $42 million annually.
Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, and Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, members of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, both agree the state shouldn’t be tossing away cash keeping these individuals behind bars.
They just don’t see eye-to-eye on how to go about it.
Committee chair Rubin points to landmark legislation passed in the most recent session, the Justice Reinvestment Act, as Kansas’ solution to the problem of increasing incarceration and recidivism.
Under the law, court services and community corrections officers can require violators serve two- or three-day stints in jail for minor (parole) infractions. Judges were empowered to impose 120-day or 180-day prison sanctions for more serious infractions, in addition to current penalties of 60 days in jail or full revocation. Violators under previous Kansas law might be sent back to prison for months or years to complete an unexpired term.
The bill also places greater emphasis on utilizing local rehabilitation and mental health centers to address drug-related issues.
“If these people are non-violent, if we can keep those who are not a threat to public safety in the community to get drug or alcohol treatment or mental health treatment to reduce recidivism, we should,” Rubin said.
“We have already built into the sentencing guidelines presumptive probation for folks who are not a threat to public safety,” he added in reference to drug possession convictions.
But Rubin made one thing clear: he doesn’t support reforming drug laws to keep these individuals from conviction in the first place, and said not all non-violent drug offenses are created equal.
“I suspect that the vast majority of those in the prison system need to be there,” Rubin told Kansas Watchdog.
The committee’s ranking Democrat argues that, contrary to Rubin’s stance, Kansans are being needlessly locked up for minor drug possession charges. It’s a problem she has seen hit some constituents hard, and says that while the Justice Reinvestment Act is “a good step forward, I think there’s probably more that we can do.”
The KDOC doesn’t track drug convictions by the type of narcotic involved. However, according to statistics provided by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, more than 60 percent of all drug offenses statewide since 2010 have involved marijuana. That’s more than cocaine, methamphetamines, LSD, heroin and all other drugs combined. The data provided didn’t include statistics from Topeka, Overland Park, Olathe and Kansas City, as those municipalities don’t track specific drug types.
Finney said simple possession charges can result in a domino effect that derails lives and families.
“I think we’re spending too much money incarcerating these people when we can do a better job getting them some rehab and reemployed,” Finney said.
Finney has previously introduced legislation to establish and regulate medical marijuana in Kansas.
In the end, though, both lawmakers say cash is the ultimate determining factor. Legislative funding reductions may affect efforts to combat recidivism enacted in the aforementioned corrections bill, as KDOC is facing more than $1 million in budget cuts this year. Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the entire corrections budget for the upcoming fiscal year due to a larger cut of $10 million authorized by the Legislature during the recent session, forcing lawmakers back to the drawing board in January.
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