It's time for Gov. Laura Kelly to begin addressing racial justice, immigration and criminal justice reform

By Nadine Johnson
Special to Gannett Kansas
Nadine Johnson is the executive director of ACLU Kansas.

We watched with interest the Governor’s State of the State Address last month.

We realize the governor’s numerous and weighty responsibilities: resurrecting an economy wrecked by her predecessor; rebuilding a shattered child social services system; defending the health of the state from an epic pandemic; and more.

But we found her address remarkable for areas of responsibility it did not address: There was not a word about racial justice, immigration or criminal justice reform. The omission of these topics disappointed us. Kansas takes these issues lightly at its democratic peril.

Throughout her speech the governor said that, “These aren’t typical times,” “we’ve all had to get creative with problem solving,” “we are being tested like never before,” and “we can’t simply treat this like any other moment.”

We could not agree more — and we urge the governor to apply these principles to racial justice, immigration matters and criminal justice reform, reaffirming their place on her priority list.

One area ripe for gubernatorial action is limiting law enforcement’s complicity with ICE to remove tens of thousands of hardworking Kansans, thousands of whom have no criminal conviction or just a minor traffic offense. President Biden took action on immigration on his first day in office. It’s been a couple years since her inauguration. We encourage the governor to act now.

Another key area for action is clemency. Since last spring, the ACLU of Kansas has filed more than 100 clemency applications. Each application represents a person imprisoned in Kansas whose situation warrants immediate action — some, like one of our clients battling late-stage cancer, cannot wait longer.

Gov. Kelly has yet to act on any of these applications. This delay is troubling. Too often, clemency is used by presidents and governors as they leave office. Yet if used by these leaders as a means of exercising their discretion and authority wisely, clemency can engender confidence in the system.

Our state government perpetuates a grievously expensive, dangerously overpopulated, unjust system that punishes some people disturbingly out of proportion to their crimes. Persons who would have been released already had they been sentenced under new guidelines — some of whom are our clients — are still incarcerated across Kansas. Systemic flaws mean we are allowing people to languish in prisons in contradiction to our stated values.

Right now, black men are less than 6% (roughly 3 or 4%) of the state population, but make up 30% of the inmate population. We cannot allow ourselves to get comfortable with this unconscionable situation.

Racial justice is about far more than the systemic inequities in criminal justice. One area that overlaps both spheres is the dire need for reform in law enforcement — an effort currently being undertaken by the Governor’s Racial Equity and Justice Commission. Policing practices must more closely resemble our nation’s proclaimed values of justice and equal protection under the law. That comes with accountability, and it comes from transparency.

We need to lift the veil of secrecy in law enforcement, lower our tolerance for poor performing police officers, emphasize de-escalation, move control of police departments closer to communities and make sure those departments and command structures resemble the communities they serve.

Lastly, local police should not take on the work of federal immigration enforcement. Federal work can be left to federal employees — and budgets.

Last week, these issues did not receive any of the sunlight they deserved, but their import remains clear. As the governor noted, now is the time for bipartisanship. We agree, and we hope that Gov. Kelly uses her relationships with Republicans, about which she spoke eloquently, to make meaningful change.

Nadine Johnson is the executive director of ACLU Kansas.