More than 150 nonviolent drug users are sitting in Kansas prisons.
State Rep. Bill McCreary, R-Wellington, says they would be better off in rehabilitation programs.
"These people are costing us a ton of money - and when they get out, they're not going to be any better than when they went in," McCreary said. "I don't think that does anybody any good."
McCreary, 73, has sponsored a bill - House Bill 2231 - that would let 156 inmates ask their sentencing judges to put them in drug treatment programs rather than prison.
In Kansas, drug offenders sentenced after Nov. 1, 2003, are sent to rehabilitation programs rather than prison. The 156 inmates affected by McCreary's bill were sentenced before Nov. 1, 2003.
"That doesn't seem fair to me," McCreary said. "It doesn't seem right that two people can commit the same crime and end up serving completely different sentences."
McCreary's bill passed the House last year after its scope was limited to inmates sentenced for drug possession.
Setback for bill
The bill, now in the Senate, suffered a major setback last month when the 16-member Kansas Sentencing Commission voted to oppose it.
"I was a little bit surprised," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, a member of the sentencing commission and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The commission, Vratil said, raised several concerns:
¢ Judges have no way to know which inmates are good candidates for rehabilitation and which are not.
¢ The process for appealing judges' decisions is unclear.
¢ Some inmates' sentences were subject to plea bargains that prosecutors would not have made if they had known rehabilitation - rather than incarceration - was the likely outcome.
¢ Treatment is costing more than expected.
But McCreary argued that treatment was considerably cheaper than incarceration, that prosecutors were free to cite plea-bargain concerns in their arguments against the change in sentence, and that judges were capable of weighing an inmate's request.
"If a judge can't look at a case and decide, then who can?" McCreary said.
Still, Vratil, who's supported rehabilitation-over-incarceration bills in the past, is not optimistic.
"I don't sense a whole lot of interest in making drug treatment retroactive," he said.
The lack of interest coincides with efforts to toughen sentences for sex offenders.
"A politician's worst fear is appearing soft on crime - that's what's going here," said Peter Ninemire, a spokesman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization opposed to harsh sentences for crimes attributed to addiction.
Ninemire, of Wichita, spent much of the 1990s in prison for marijuana trafficking.
"It's just incredible to me that we're keeping these ... people in prison at four times the cost of treatment. And we know they're not getting any better while they're in prison," he said. "So guess what? We're spending more to ensure worse outcomes."
In Kansas, each inmate costs the state about $22,000 a year.
Challenges for inmates
Paul Goseland, 53, spent 13 years in Kansas prisons on drug charges. He said McCreary's bill included a provision that was sure to discourage inmates who weren't serious about beating their addictions.
"You don't get credit for the time you're in treatment, which, if it's intense, can last 18 months," he said. "So if you don't make it, you'll be adding to your sentence.
"A lot of guys won't take that risk," he said. "They'll just do their time, get out and take their chances."
Also, inmates are well aware that "treatment is no picnic," said Goseland, who lives in Wichita. He's been on parole since May 2005.
"If you're going to make it, you have to be serious about it," he said. "And if you're serious about it, it's a lot of hard work."
McCreary's initiative piggybacks onto Senate Bill 123, a 2003 law that directed judges to put first- and second-time drug offenders in treatment rather than prison.
So far, the new law appears to be working.
"All the indications are really good," said Patricia Biggs, executive director at the sentencing commission.
"The problem is we haven't been at it long enough to draw too many conclusions," she said, noting that treatment often lasts 12 to 18 months, followed by 12 months of supervision.
Keeping track of how offenders fare without supervision, Biggs said, is critical measurement.
"We don't know that yet because we're not there yet," she said. "But we're getting there."
Still, Biggs said the program's current recidivism rate is below 10 percent.
"That's about what it's been here," said David Ruhlen, who runs the DCCCA outpatient treatment program in Lawrence.
"Since last March, we've had 21 (offenders) enter the program - seven successfully completed the program, nine are still in, three were referred to in-patient, one absconded and one ended up back in jail."
Treatment is expensive
Ruhlen praised Senate Bill 123.
"Anytime you offer someone treatment for an addiction, it's a good thing," Ruhlen said.
It's not been cheap. Earlier this year, the sentencing commission asked the Legislature for an additional $2.8 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
"We're getting in the number of people we expected - about 1,850 a year - but the cost per person is higher because their addictions are more serious than we expected," Biggs said. "The more serious the addiction, the higher the cost."
Biggs said the sentencing commission expected to spend $4,400 per drug offender. Actual costs are closer to $4,600.
Also, many have needed to remain in treatment longer than projected.
But McCreary and Ninemire cited reports that Senate Bill 123 has kept about 400 offenders out of prison, saving the state millions of dollars.
Not all of the 1,850 offenders referred to treatment would have been sentenced to prison prior to the new law taking effect.
"This is saving the state money," McCreary said. "It may cost us something in the short run, but it'll save money in the long run."
Emphasis on prisons
But Vratil warned that for many legislators, spending more on prisons has become synonymous with being tough on crime.
"Look at the sex-offender bill that's passed the Senate - it increases demand by 994 beds," he said. "There's no way we can do that without building a new prison or adding on to ones we have. We're at 99-percent capacity."
McCreary isn't giving up. If his bill passes in the Senate, he said he'll push to include sentences tied to drugs and addiction.