In an editorial in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, and Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which serves as the union for Kansas' correctional officers, outline the reforms they see as necessary to fixing our broken criminal justice system.
Kansas is at a crossroads. Broken policies have led to a criminal justice system that incarcerates too many people in prisons that are understaffed, underfunded, and unsafe. Last year, we spent $229 million to house 9,800 inmates, many of them non-violent drug offenders or individuals with a mental illness. Meanwhile, our prisons have been unable to pay staff adequately, leading many to resign and leaving critical posts vacant. These problems can’t be solved with temporary fixes. We have a unique opportunity to address these failures by reforming our sentencing laws. We need sentencing that does not burden our prison system, and to reintegrate ex-offenders into society.
Unduly harsh sentences for drug offenses have led to a rapidly growing prison population and disastrous consequences for our communities. Drug offenses are the main driver of new admissions into our state’s prisons. Nearly 30% of admissions are for drug offenses, while only 10% serve time for theft and burglary. These harsh sentences undermine family stability, leaving one in sixteen Kansas children without the care of their parents. Moreover, drug convictions have severe long-term consequences, such as exclusion from employment, housing, or even a driver’s license. These barriers leave families ravaged and carry enormous financial costs to the state.
Prisons across Kansas are burdened by over-incarceration. Staffing shortages and employees' long hours have made environments volatile, putting both correctional officers and inmates at risk. Staff work shifts as long as 16 hours at facilities housing hundreds more inmates than they were designed for. These issues reached a fever pitch this summer when a state of emergency was declared at El Dorado Correctional Facility.
Governor Brownback proposed a 5% across-the-board salary increase for uniformed officers in the Department of Corrections, with a 10% increase at El Dorado. This one-time infusion of $3.7 million just puts off the problem. Staff turnover reached an annual rate of 47% this month, and the facility fell below minimum staffing requirements. Health insurance premiums for officers have risen dramatically over the last 2 years and will rise again in 2018. While marginal salary increases may help retain uniformed officers, it does little to address overcrowding and the safety of staff and inmates.
Converting non-violent drug offenses from felonies into misdemeanors would have immediate, significant benefits for Kansas. This simple reform could result in a 6% decrease in prison admissions during its first year, and cut government spending on prisons by millions. In future years, the savings would be even larger. We can ensure that our prisons are not overcrowded and correctional officers can be adequately paid.
This proposal is not radical or untested; states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming have made all or most drug offenses misdemeanors, saving millions with no negative impact on community safety. A similar bipartisan effort in Kansas could reduce recidivism and our prison population.
Kansas can be a leader in making communities safer and stronger. Now is the time to address the systemic problems in our prisons and criminal justice pipeline by bringing our sentencing laws in line with other states. Patchwork fixes have done little to reduce prison overcrowding, while prison staff are overworked and underpaid. Communities suffer when people with addiction and mental illness are incarcerated rather than treated. We urge the Legislature to act. Reducing prison overcrowding is one of the few goals on which those on the left and right agree. Let’s enact sentencing reform now, build a criminal justice system that works for us all, and make communities safer and stronger.