Topeka Efforts to block Gov. Sam Brownback’s plans to abolish the Kansas Parole Board and transfer its duties to the Department of Corrections were narrowly defeated Wednesday in the Senate.
A resolution that would have stopped the reorganization failed 20-19, just one vote shy of the number needed to prevent the Republican governor from dismantling the three-member board. Unless another vote is taken, which is unlikely, the change takes effect July 1.
The board is responsible for granting prison inmates parole and deciding when a parole violation warrants someone getting sent back to prison. Brownback’s plan would give those responsibilities to senior-level Corrections Department officials, which the governor said would save the state about $500,000 in the next fiscal year.
Critics argue that the plan would create a potential conflict for prison officials who must weigh releasing inmates with concerns about prison overcrowding.
“I think it’s a really bad idea,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “The Department of Corrections has other issues that might be considered higher priorities, particularly bed space issues.”
Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts testified in February that he would establish an internal group of senior department officials that would review the status of inmates who are still eligible for parole. Most inmates in the Kansas system are not eligible because they have set sentences.
Sen. Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said Wednesday that he was initially concerned about the potential conflicts of interest, but he now supported the plan.
“I think there could have been some other provisions added to the reorganization order to make it crystal clear that this is a fair and impartial board deciding parole,” Bruce said. “But I don’t see any constitutional deficiencies that we can’t fix, if necessary, going forward.”
There are more than 750 inmates in Kansas prisons who were sentenced before the state implemented predetermined sentencing guidelines. But there are close to 400 other inmates who have “off-grid” sentences for first- and second-degree murder and sexual crimes, meaning their sentences could be determined by the parole board.
Bruce said corrections officials, not the actual parole officers, would decide when someone should return to prison for violations and avoid a direct conflict of interest.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens said he still had concerns about eliminating the independent board and thought the resolution had more support than it garnered during Wednesday’s vote.
“I think it’s all a matter of the split in the Legislature and who’s going to support what,” said Owens, an Overland Park Republican.
Brownback discussed abolishing the parole board during his State of the State address in January as part of his plan to reorganize state government by combining, consolidating or eliminating eight state agencies and commissions. The plan would save more than $8 million in 2012.
Several of his plans have faced opposition. Efforts to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission, and create a nonprofit foundation, were rejected. Another proposal to move the Kansas Human Rights Commission under the attorney general’s office was withdrawn, though the commission’s budget will be reduced in the coming year.