Archive for Monday, January 27, 2003

Attorney general opposes plan to release drug offenders

January 27, 2003

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— In a bid to ease prison overcrowding in Kansas, the Legislature is scheduled to consider a plan to move hundreds of felony drug offenders from prisons into treatment programs.

The proposal, developed by the Kansas Sentencing Commission, is being billed as an economical way to get the state through an impending prison overcrowding crisis.

The number of inmates is expected to rise above 9,000 for the first time early this year. A federal court order says the system cannot exceed about 9,100 inmates. Legislators face a tight budget that may not include money to add prison beds.

"Something's got to give," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "I'm not opposed to adding more beds, but I don't think that's going to happen."

The Sentencing Commission concluded that of all prison inmates in Kansas, the group of nonviolent drug offenders would pose the least threat if released early.

The commission, state officials that advise the Legislature on criminal justice issues, will meet Tuesday to approve a final version of a bill that outlines the proposal. O'Neal said he does not expect the plan to pass without opposition.

Atty. Gen. Phill Kline is among the opponents, said spokesman Whitney Watson.

"If the choice is to release prisoners or find a way to add bed space, then absolutely his choice is to add bed space," Watson said. "It's a matter of priorities, and you have to make public safety a top -- if not the top -- priority."

Barbara Tombs, executive director of the Sentencing Commission, said the Kansas proposal would apply only to offenders with no history of violence or drug trafficking. She said the plan could free up 383 prison beds by the end of next year and 571 beds eventually.

Because several inmates might be rotated through a single prison bed in any given year, the number of inmates who would qualify probably would be larger than the number of beds that would become available.

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