There was little diversity of opinion Thursday night at a Douglas County candidate forum that focused on criminal justice reform in Kansas.
That's because the forum at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence drew only eight legislative candidates, seven Democrats and one moderate Republican, all of whom generally share similar opinions on issues such as reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenses and the need to eliminate racial disparities in criminal sentencing.
But Micah Kubic, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, one of the sponsors of the event, said the point was mainly to put some focus on issues that aren't getting much attention in an election cycle that has focused mainly on issues of tax policy, budget cuts and education funding.
Responding to questions from moderator Edith Guffey, all of the candidates agreed there is a need, and broad-based support for reforming sentencing laws, especially for non-violent drug offenses, but they offered slightly different thoughts about why it hasn't happened yet in Kansas.
"I think one reason we haven’t seen action is historically, the political climate has been such that if you're seen as soft on sentencing, or not tough on criminals, you should be defeated," said Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, who is running unopposed this year.
He added, though, that he thinks the climate is changing, and he said he's hopeful the new climate will be reflected in election results Nov. 8.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, agreed, adding, "Reforms start from the bottom up. The issue has not been in the forefront as it should have been."
Holland's challenger this year, Republican Echo Van Meteren of Linwood, did not attend the forum.
Rep. Tom Sloan of Lawrence, the lone Republican candidate taking part in the forum, likened the drug laws to Prohibition in the 1920s.
"It failed because a significant number of citizens refused to obey the laws," he said. "I think the movement on drug sentencing will follow same path when a large number of people say marijuana is not an issue and we need to address it."
Sloan's challenger, Democrat Terry Manies of Lecompton, said she believes President Richard Nixon's administration was intentionally targeting minority communities when he launched what is now called the "war on drugs" in the 1960s, a claim recently substantiated in a Harper's Magazine interview earlier this year with former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman.
"Part of it is, who is incarcerated the most," said Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence. "It's people of color, not just the poor. I don’t think people know how to reform it, and it’s expensive."
Ballard's challenger, Republican Michael Lindsey, did not attend the forum.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, also said public support for reforming drug sentencing laws has not yet risen from the public to the Legislature, and lawmakers are sometimes reluctant to push certain issues without that support.
"People don’t want to bring forward a bill they know isn’t going to go anywhere," she said.
Francisco's challenger this year, Republican Meredith Richey of Perry, did not attend the forum.
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, who is running unopposed this year, noted that lawmakers did pass a bill this year reducing sentences for first- and second-time marijuana possession. But he said it took two years to get that bill passed because in the 2015 session, some Republicans in the Senate feared it would make them look soft on crime.
Coincidentally, the forum took place just hours after the White House announced that President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of 102 federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug crimes, including two from Kansas.
Leroy Fondren Jr., of Kansas City, Kan., will be released in February after serving nearly 10 years of a 15-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
And Lavelle Henderson of Topeka had his life sentence reduced to 20 years for his 2002 conviction for operating a continuing criminal enterprise and money laundering.
That brings to 774 the total number of commutations Obama has granted during his time in office, more than the previous 11 presidents combined, according to the White House.
There was some difference of opinion at the panel on questions about the death penalty and legalizing marijuana.
When asked for a show of hands on whether they would vote for or against a bill to repeal the death penalty, all but two candidates indicated they would support such a bill, including Democrat Kara Reed of Tonganoxie, who is running against Republican Jim Karleskint for the open 42nd District seat in eastern Douglas and Leavenworth counties. Karleskint did not attend the forum.
But Sen. Holland and Rep. Sloan did not raise their hands either way, and there was no follow-up question for them to explain their position.
The candidates also had different views about legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use.
Wilson noted that he sponsored a bill this year to legalize the use of hemp oil to treat certain kinds of seizure disorders. That bill passed the House but was blocked in conference committee meetings by Senate negotiators.
Holland and Reed were both reluctant to make a commitment on legalizing marijuana, saying they wanted to hear more from the voters in their districts before deciding how they would vote.
Manies, Ballard and Francisco all said they support legalizing medical uses of marijuana.
Highberger was the only candidate who said he would support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use, but he said it's unlikely to happen anytime soon in Kansas.
"I've been following the experiment in Colorado," he said. "And in two years, I have not seen evidence that it's causing problems."
About two dozen people attended Thursday's forum in Lawrence. It was the third criminal justice forum the ACLU and Kansans for Smart Justice have sponsored so far.
Similar events were held last week in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. Two more events are scheduled for next week in Topeka and Wichita.
To read the original report in the Lawrence Journal-World, click here.