Although the U.S. only accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it’s home to more than 20 percent of the world’s inmates. There are 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, which means our incarceration rate is around 670 per 100,000 — higher than any other country. Russia comes in second at 439 per 100,000.
According to the Kansas ACLU, almost 10,000 people are incarcerated in our state’s jails and prisons. This number has increased fourfold over the past 40 years, despite the fact that the “crime rate in Kansas has fallen significantly.” This mirrors the explosion in the prison population nationwide, which rose by a staggering 408 percent between 1978 and 2014 — even as crime rates fell precipitously over the same period.
For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that violent crime collapsed by 77 percent in the U.S. between 1993 and 2015. Meanwhile the total prison population surged from 932,000 to almost 1.5 million over the same period. Some might argue that the decrease in crime was caused by the spike in incarceration rates, but this isn’t backed up by the data. According to a 2016 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, “Over the last ten years, 27 states have decreased both crime and imprisonment. Not only is this trend possible, it’s played out in the majority of states.”
One way to start reducing our massive incarceration rate is to focus on alternatives to locking people up, such as diversions (which allow people to do community service, pursue treatment or pay restitution in place of jail or prison time). This month, the ACLU of Kansas released a damning report about our state’s aversion to this practice, which explains that our prosecutors “use diversion at just half of the national average, or in about 5 percent of all felony cases.” Moreover, 23 counties in Kansas don’t offer any felony diversions.
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay is one of the exceptions mentioned in the report. He has used diversions in 8.1 percent of felony cases — a welcome acknowledgement that prosecutors’ options are more expansive than many of his colleagues seem to think.
Earlier this year, unrest at Kansas prisons started a statewide discussion about major staff shortages at the Kansas Department of Corrections — a problem that has been exacerbated by our high rate of imprisonment (328 per 100,000). But in many cases, these inmates didn’t need to be crammed into an already overloaded prison system. The Kansas ACLU points to diversion programs in Nevada and Oklahoma, which have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and decreased rates of recidivism dramatically.
A 2012 study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior found similar results in juvenile justice systems: “Diversion programs for youth are significantly more successful than traditional juvenile justice systems in reducing recidivism.”
These points are particularly salient when we remember that many inmates suffer from mental illnesses. The Kansas ACLU reports that “35 percent of adult inmates in Kansas had a diagnosed mental health condition” in 2016. The problem is so extensive that Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning recently said he’s “running the largest mental health hospital in the state of Kansas.” There are also many inmates with addiction issues, but they certainly won’t receive the treatment they need in prison.
It’s easy to lock people up, but it’s difficult to figure out what causes them to commit crimes in the first place. Kansas should adopt a more sustainable and comprehensive approach to criminal justice — an approach that will address issues like mental illness, addiction, rehabilitation and poverty instead of just throwing more and more offenders behind bars.