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Recent Kansas law eyed to help prison population

Published on -9/11/2013, 5:07 PM

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Recent changes in post-release supervision of convicted offenders should help control growth in Kansas' prison population and stave off the prospect of building a new facility, the state's corrections secretary said Wednesday.

Roberts said in an interview with The Associated Press that the changes in release policies, which took effect July 1, could result in 100 fewer people going back to prison for technical violations in each of the next two years. He also said the savings would be reinvested in programs to treat substance abuse and mental health problems among prison inmates.

"We should get some relief," Roberts said. "It will be less than capacity."

As of Wednesday, Kansas' male prison population was 8,877 -- 78 people over capacity, Roberts said. The female population was 761, or 34 below capacity.

The Kansas Sentencing Commission is expected to issue new forecasts for prison populations in the coming weeks.

The policy changes, Roberts said, would keep convicted offenders in their communities and under watch of probation officers who would work with the courts to supervise their reintegration into society. He said even if those on probation commit technical parole violations, sending them to local jails for two- or three-day stints would be "10 times cheaper" for the state than returning them to prison for several months.

Other changes in policy reward eligible inmates for participating in rehabilitation programs and good behavior by reducing supervision time.

Roberts said the total prison population has increased by nearly 900 inmates over the past decade. The last time the system was below capacity was in December 2009.

"A lot of that is due to legislation to keep sex offenders and violent offenders in prison longer," he said, adding that there have been 99 changes in sentencing guidelines since 2005.

Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said the initiatives to keep offenders from going to prison for technical probation violations will give lawmakers a short reprieve from having to consider construction of a new prison.

"We're eventually going to have to start talking about building a new prison," he said. "We can never stop thinking about it."

He noted California's problems with prison overcrowding and federal court orders to release prisoners. He said such situations not only endanger public safety but stress prison staff.

"That's where we do not want to go," he said.

Rubin said if the state lets the prison system get to that point, it could encourage federal lawsuits forcing Kansas to take action, as it had in the past.

An inmate had filed a federal lawsuit in 1977 that led to a scathing report on conditions in state prisons a decade later, prompting federal court orders for the early release of prisoners. The prison system was almost 60 percent above capacity at the time. Corrections operations remained under federal court oversight until 1996.

Facing yet more potential releases, legislators approved construction of the state's maximum-security prison at El Dorado in south-central Kansas.

Adding two new units to El Dorado for a total of 512 new beds would cost about $23.5 million and another $8.4 million annually to operate, which Roberts said gives Kansas "the best option" going forward.

"It's a changing landscape that we operate in. We're going to look at the impact and make some recommendations to the governor and legislators as to the best option," he said.

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