Eight area candidates for the Kansas Legislature faced questions Tuesday night from a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, offering a glimpse into their views on body cameras, marijuana and prison overcrowding.

Kansans for Smart Justice is an alliance of 16 civil rights, community and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, NAACP of Kansas and Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The candidate panel lacked for political diversity; all eight candidates who attended were Democrats. They frequently criticized Republicans in the state and rarely disagreed among themselves.

“There’s no reason we should have the numbers in prison that we do. That is statistically improbable,” said Candace Ayars, a statistician challenging Sen. Vicki Schmidt, in response to a question on prison overcrowding in Kansas. “It seems very unlikely that all those people deserve to be in jail.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said there are an abundance of prison cells in Kansas and a dearth of local programs to care for petty criminals, especially those with mental illness. He urged the Legislature to properly fund community corrections programs, as they did decades ago.

“Another thing I would do is invest heavily in early childhood education,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, who like many on the stage argued that appropriations for schools and community programs would decrease crime.

The three Democratic candidates for the Senate were lukewarm on the need for a state law requiring that body cameras be worn by law enforcement officers.

“I’m not sure it should be mandated by the state,” Hensley said. “I think it’s a local issue.”

Kelly agreed, saying, “I don’t think we should add to the burden (on local governments). If communities want to do it, fine.”

Ayars also said it should be left to local governments. She added that body cameras aren’t appropriate in certain circumstances, such as when a police officer is undercover.

On a question about decriminalizing marijuana, Kelly said she wouldn’t work toward that, believing the state isn’t ready to decriminalize the drug. Hensley and Ayars signaled they would work toward decriminalization, but in small steps.

“I think the first step is to get the votes that would allow for the medical use of marijuana,” Hensley said. “That’s the first thing we need to do.”

Hensley will be challenged Nov. 8 by Zach Haney, a Republican. Kelly is being challenged by Republican Dave Jackson. Neither Haney nor Jackson was in attendance.

Five Kansas House candidates took part in the forum: Rep. Jim Gartner and challengers Renae Hansen, Adrienne Olejnik, Chris Huntsman and Virgil Weigel.

The candidates were asked what, if anything, should be done about racial disparities in Kansas prisons. African-Americans and Hispanics accounted for 17 percent of the state’s population in 2010 but half of its prison population, according to Kansans for Smart Justice.

“I know the big issue has been racial profiling and I believe there is some of that, that does happen,” Gartner said. “I believe local police officers are doing the best they can, but I believe they do need additional training.”

In response to several questions on race, Weigel, a retired law enforcement officer, touted the need for community policing. When officers are involved in the communities they protect and serve, everyone is better off, he said.

All five candidates rejected the need for more prisons in the state and favored expanding programs that grant mental health services to inmates who need it. Hansen also advocated for reduced penalties for nonviolent drug crimes.

“For most drug users, it’s a mental health issue, they are self-medicating,” she said.

The forum comes five days after President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of 102 drug criminals, including two from Kansas. The president has issued 774 commutations, more than the past 11 presidents combined, according to the White House.

Much to the frustration of the Democrats taking part in the forum Tuesday night, many of their solutions would require the state to spend more money during tight fiscal times. Hensley drew laughter when, for a third time, he answered a question by saying, “We have to reverse the Brownback tax cuts.”

Tuesday’s legislative forum was held at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, 1515 S.W. 10th. It is the fourth of five forums being held across the eastern half of the state by Kansans for Smart Justice.

Read orginial story at the Topeka Capital-Journal

Justin Wingerter can be reached at (785) 295-1100 or justin.wingerter@cjonline.com.