Kansas City, Mo. Tougher sentencing laws and reduced prisoner programming budgets have Kansas officials discussing ways to balance the need to protect the public against efforts to reduce the state's burgeoning prison population, Kansas Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts said.
A recent count found Kansas men's prisons are housing 8,635 inmates, 266 over capacity. The state's prisons are projected to be short about 2,000 beds in a decade, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. Prisons for women also will exceed capacity in about seven years, the commission said.
The solutions being considered would keep the public safe while releasing some prisoners sooner than planned or keeping them out of prison in the first place, Roberts told The Kansas City Star. So far, Kansas is not considering mass releases of prisoners.
Roberts has a mix of three broad options in mind: build more prisons, house prisoners in county jails or cut recidivism by helping paroled prisoners. Each idea would cost millions of dollars, he said.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman said police and prosecutors won't let up in efforts to bring prisoners to trial.
"We would be opposed to any kind of early release determination by administrators after experts like police, prosecutors and juries have determined what a sentence should be," he said.
Roberts said the problem is partly due to state lawmakers making 99 changes in sentencing laws since 2005 to increase punishment for such crimes as sex offenses, or to make crimes that used to be punished by probation subject to prison sentences.
At the same time, money has been eliminated for housing and other programs that help prisoners, including the 27 percent of Kansas prison population with mental illness, Roberts said.
Roberts is requesting $4.8 million to restore some housing, substance abuse treatment and education programs in the 2013 fiscal year budget, which starts in July. Such programs lowered the prison population years ago by reducing the number of ex-convicts who returned to custody, but the sentencing commission reports the current crowding problem comes mainly from tougher laws.
The state is expected to spend about $1.5 million through the end of June to house state prisoners in county jails. Roberts wants that amount increased to $2.5 million in the 2013 budget.
Roberts and Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who chairs a House-Senate committee on corrections and juvenile justice, said another option is allowing more inmates into a drug treatment diversion program and letting them in more often. The program now admits only minor offenders who can use it only once to avoid prison. They also suggest all inmates be allowed to participate in a behavior program that can shave 60 days off their sentences.
And Colloton will introduce a bill that would promote the Johnson County district attorney's mental illness diversion program, which allows minor offenders to have charges against them dropped.