Attorney General Derek Schmidt's appeal to the Kansas Legislature and the newly appointed task force on criminal justice reform is to vigorously avoid the fate of recidivists cycling in and out of jails and prisons.

Schmidt is placing faith in 21 members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission with the hope they can break through philosophical, political and financial barriers to overhauling the system and make headway on improving public safety.

He said the bipartisan commission must complete a detailed analysis by December 2020 that realistically deals with repeat offenders driven to misconduct by addiction and mental health challenges. He wants legislators consuming the commission's report to avoid balking at the cost of reform.

"I hope we're able to reach a consensus on which part of criminal justice reform we think we need to focus on, because it's such an enormous topic," Schmidt told the Capitol Insider, a political podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal. "The risk of a lot of talk and no agreement at the end is a real one."

 

The commission was created by the 2019 Legislature in response to crowding in prisons operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections. State prison facilities, as well as city and county jails, are flooded with folks consumed by drug or alcohol addiction. A swath of people in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.

Schmidt said community outreach initiatives and correctional intervention programs have not kept pace with needs of people colliding with the justice system.

Altering behavior of individuals on the wrong side of the law and addressing shortcomings in public safety can occur if lawmakers invest wisely, he said.

"If that's what we want to do, that's going to cost money, at least in the short term. It's not going to save money," the Republican attorney general and former state senator said. "We've been down this road before and ... previously the conclusion was, 'We're not willing to spend the money to do what has a real chance of making a difference.' "

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly appointed to the commission Sylvia Penner, a Wichita defense attorney, and Adrion Roberson, the Kansas City, Kan., co-pastor of Berean Fellowship Church and co-founder of a youth sports and education initiative.

"We have a lot of work to do," Kelly said. "Sylvia and Adrion have a proven track record of working hard in their communities. I know they are ready for the challenge and will become integral voices in the discussion."

Schmidt, who can directly serve on the commission as a nonvoting member or appoint a representative to the panel, said the state should return to a concept adopted in 2007 by the Legislature to open a state prison facility dedicated to serving people struggling with substance abuse and guilty of offenses requiring they be separated from their communities.

Architectural plans were developed and bonding approved for the special prison, but the project fell off the radar.

"You have to deal with addiction issues if you want to deal with one the largest motivators for criminal misbehavior. That's just a reality," Schmidt said.

He said Kansas could start with a single treatment prison for low-level offenders to demonstrate effectiveness before branching out to form a regional network.

About 40% of men and women incarcerated in the state's prisons suffer from mental illness, he said. The approach to this category of offender requires intervention with community-based supports and programs in state prisons.

In addition, Schmidt said a vacant, secure pod at Larned State Hospital could be used to intensify treatment of criminal offenders.

"The answer is sort of the same. We need more of what we have," Schmidt said.