Kiana Knolland, Topeka Capitol Journal
Kansas is in a crisis.
For several weeks, the prison population has soared beyond capacity. In fact, our prison population has quadrupled since the 1980s despite steady declines in crime.
Our gubernatorial candidates have not mentioned this crisis.
The candidates talk about education, taxation, and industry, but not about the horrifically expanding prison system that likely would scuttle advances in each of these areas.
The racial disparities are frightening. African-Americans represent 6 percent of the population, but 30 percent of the state’s prisoners. Kansas ranks 14th nationally in the per capita African American imprisonment rate.
Kansas also incarcerates nonviolent offenders at higher rates than other offenders. Drug offenses account for nearly one-third of prison admissions. Roughly 70 percent of people imprisoned in 2015 did not commit a violent crime. We’re witnessing a human rights disaster, and none of the candidates are talking about it.
Many states are making progressive strides in reducing mass incarceration.
Across the country, state governments have mounted sentencing reform and prosecutorial accountability efforts.
The ACLU of Kansas’ Smart Justice Campaign aims to reduce mass incarceration, boost prosecutorial accountability, reform civil asset forfeiture policies, reduce recidivism, de-felonize drug crimes and eliminate racial disparities.
We’re actively promoting a movement we hope causes Kansans to reimagine our criminal justice system, rethink police and prosecutorial strategies, and reconsider “tough on crime” philosophies which we now know helped create this disaster.
The ACLU nationally just rolled out a “50-State Blueprint” on how to move forward and save nearly $300 million through cutting prison populations in half.
We also worked with a coalition of individuals, legislators and advocacy groups in securing two 2018 victories: an Executive Order to “Ban the Box” and the passage of a bill requiring law enforcement to document property seized from citizens.
But these important measures are hardly enough to move us toward the reforms we urgently need.
Regardless of political belief, every Kansan should care about this, whether it’s moral outrage about the destruction of lives, families and communities or the fact that we’re mortgaging our children’s financial future clinging to bad policy.
Our gubernatorial candidates must prioritize criminal justice reform.
I encourage them to stand on the right side of history, add criminal justice reform to their platforms and immediately begin sharing their ideas on how they’d address this crisis.
The rising costs continue to spin like images in a slot machine window and the devastating human toll climbs with every wasted minute.
We have so much more to decide than who will ascend to the governor’s mansion at Cedar Crest.
We need to decide whether we’d rather jail adults than educate them as children. Whether we’d rather spend tax dollars building prisons or building a job-creating industry. Whether we want to lock up nonviolent offenders or utilize diversion.
It is up to us to proactively change the trajectory of our state, and we need the gubernatorial candidates to be a part of this important conversation.
Kiana Knolland, of Wichita, is the Smart Justice field organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.