On a recent visit to the Journal-World, Gov. Mark Parkinson was asked to identify his top priorities to restore funding when the state’s economy and tax revenues start to rebound.
The two areas at the top of his list were to rebuild the reserves that give the state a little financial cushion in difficult times and to restore funding to key programs in the Department of Corrections.
The House Appropriations Committee is holding hearings in Topeka this week, seeking ways to address an expected state budget deficit. No one on the committee is talking about giving money back to any state agency, but they should listen carefully to corrections officials who warn against further budget cuts.
Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz flatly told committee members that further cuts will make both the state’s corrections facilities and the state as a whole less safe. Staffing levels are dangerously low in some facilities, he said, and the elimination of programs to help inmates re-enter society are likely to increase homelessness and repeat offenses by recently released inmates. If budget concerns prompt legislators to consider releasing inmates earlier than scheduled, the problems would only multiply.
Many areas of state government — notably education and social services — are feeling the pain of reduced state funding, but, for a pure penny-wise, pound-foolish decision, it’s hard to find a better example than the Department of Corrections.
Budget cuts have forced the department to eliminate 220 of 284 slots in its substance abuse treatment programs and 100 of 180 slots for sex offender treatment. A program to help inmates with mental health problems transition to community treatment when they are released was eliminated completely.
It is no coincidence that after these programs were instituted in 2004, the number of people returned to prison for parole violations was cut in half. It should be no surprise for that trend to be reversed under budget cuts made this year. That is a loss for Kansas, not only in terms of reduced safety but also in terms of the dollars and cents Kansas taxpayers will have to pay to imprison people who, with the proper preparation and supervision, could have remained out of prison.
It’s good to know that Parkinson places a high priority on restoring programs that have a proven benefit for the safety and finances of the state. Even in the current tight budget situation, state legislators also should recognize those benefits, make sure no more cuts are made and do their best to restore funding to these corrections programs as quickly as possible.