State prisons are reaching their capacities because fewer inmates are being granted parole.
Fewer Kansas inmates are receiving parole, and as a result, more of them are crowding state prison cells.
But most of those being denied parole aren't likely to be let out any time soon to make room for new inmates, so state officials say the only likely solution is to create more room. That may cost millions.
In 1993, after sentencing guidelines went into effect, a retroactivity clause allowed the release of more than 2,000 inmates incarcerated for less violent offenses that would have gotten them probation under the new system. But since then, the prison population has grown steadily, a 13.7 percent increase from June 30, 1994, to June 30, 1995, according to Kansas Department of Corrections records. Officials say while the number of inmates coming in has stayed the same, the number leaving has drastically decreased.
Last year, only 27 percent of the inmates who came before the Kansas Parole Board were paroled, compared with 58 percent who were paroled only three years earlier. So far this year, only 18 percent of those parole-eligible have been released.
Board members say that lesser offenders were largely cleared out in 1993 so that most of those coming before them aren't getting out because they have committed more violent crimes.
Though prison capacity is one of the issues the parole board looks at when an inmate comes up for parole, board members say they won't let that issue be a major influence in their decisions.
"We cleaned out a bunch over the last three years that we've had sentencing guidelines," said Bob Mead, a parole board member. "The ones that are left are the major offenders - the ones the average person doesn't want on the street."
To keep them off the streets, corrections officials say a costly long-term solution is needed. State officials have already spent $1.7 million to add 663 prison beds this year, some of which are temporary and 168 of which won't be done until next February, said Bill Miskell, DOC spokesman.
But during the next legislative session, DOC officials plan to present the Kansas Legislature with two long-term options to fix the prison population problem: spending $29 million to build three new housing units that would add 768 beds to state prisons or spending $35 million to build four units, said Charles Simmons, secretary of the DOC.
Simmons said adding the three housing units would bring the state prison capacity from 7,475 to just under 8,000. He said the DOC projects that there will be about 7,362 inmates by June 30, 1996, and 8,000 by 1999.
"Given the population increases we've experienced over the last year and the projections, I think the time will be at hand that this particular issue will need to be dealt with next (legislative) session," Simmons said.
If approved by the legislature, Simmons said it would take two years to complete construction of the new facilities. Because of that delay, Simmons said the DOC would also be asking the legislature for funds for some short term expansions and staffing increases to deal with the growing number of prisoners.
Simmons said though no one has made any specific commitments, he believes legislators and Gov. Bill Graves will be receptive to the corrections needs.
"The governor has indicated on a number of occasions that it's very likely, given the current situation and the projected increase, that he'll be recommending additional cell houses at El Dorado," Simmons said. "He recognizes that if we're going to incarcerate more people, we have to have a place to put them."
Simmons said the state will seek grants through the federal crime bill to help pay for construction costs. Depending on how much those grants might be, Simmons said the state could also use bonds to finance the rest of the expansion, as they have with other facilities. Currently the state pays about $10 million annually in financing costs for facilities in El Dorado, Larned, Wichita and Ellsworth, he said.
Kansas Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall said an additional way to help alleviate the population problem would be to set up an alternate way to punish parole violators, rather than just sending them back to prison.
"We could set up something like a boot camp, where these people are punished, but they're not populating the prisons," Stovall said.
Simmons said current public sentiment is another reason inmates are being kept longer.
"Folks are tired of these individuals, and they want them punished and locked up, and I think that is certainly a factor that contributes to this," he said.