Later this month, the new Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission will start discussing further criminal justice reforms for our state.
Kansas has led criminal justice reform for two decades. Prior major reforms made it more difficult to send probationers or parolees to prison for violating the conditions of their non-prison sentence (2000), moved nonviolent drug offenders to community-based treatment rather than prison (2003), prioritized reentry programs to help released prisoners succeed (2007), invested heavily in reentry programs (2010), comprehensively recodified our criminal code with an eye toward sentencing proportionality (2010), created graduated revocation sanctions (2013), and overhauled our juvenile justice system to place more juvenile offenders into services instead of lockup (2016). The Legislature enacts less-major reforms nearly every year.
We already have harvested the low-hanging fruit. The Kansas incarceration rate ranks 32nd among all states, lower than three of our neighboring states, and well below the national average.
Transformative reforms aimed at improving both offender behavior and public safety by preventing future crimes will be expensive. In 2004, the Legislature created the Criminal Justice Recodification, Rehabilitation and Restoration Project, similar to the new Commission, but sticker shock left prisoner rehabilitation and restoration undone. In 2007, the Legislature authorized construction of a specially designed drug-treatment prison to target intensive, in-facility treatment to addicts who committed low- and mid-level crimes. The state still has blueprints for this forward-looking facility, but it never was built.
In my view, here is where meaningful reforms now must focus.
First, Kansas needs additional drug-treatment options. Methamphetamine is a devastating drug and its addiction is difficult to treat. The full range of current options must be made available statewide – community-based treatment programs are thin or absent in many areas, residential treatment beds are too few and far from many communities that need them, and many of our prisons or jails lack meaningful treatment for incarcerated offenders. Expanding use of drug courts goes hand-in-glove with better treatment options, but we also need drug-treatment specialty prisons as another option to more fully combat difficult addictions.
We should focus on low-level offenders imprisoned for drug possession or related crimes. But contrary to a popular belief, ending up in prison for the lowest-level drug offenses generally requires at least three prior misdemeanor convictions or a prior felony. As a group, these are offenders who have had multiple chances and simply do not behave. We do a disservice both to the offender and to our communities if we simply release them (or prevent their incarceration) without providing meaningful drug-treatment to try to change why they misbehave.
Second, we need additional options for effective mental health treatment. Too many people who commit crimes because of mental illness are “warehoused” in prison because communities lack other options to maintain public safety. As with drug-addicted offenders, merely releasing offenders with mental illness sets them up to fail — and perhaps to harm others. More options for effective mental health treatment are needed not only in communities but in jails, prisons and other institutions such as state hospitals.
Kansas needs treatment-based alternatives to traditional prison. These alternatives must include keeping communities safe during treatment by confining offenders who hurt other people, disrupt public order, or damage or steal others’ property because of their addiction or mental illness.
Without the appetite to pay for these sorts of investments that promise long-term changes in offender behavior, discussion of “reform” will eventually devolve to emptying prison space instead of improving public safety. Either we break the cycle of re-offense fueled by drug addiction or mental illness now or we can expect this same discussion for decades more until we do.
Derek Schmidt is the Kansas attorney general.