As regular as clockwork, the prison gates close on more people in Kansas every day.
Even when crime rates go down — as they have in Kansas in recent years — the prisons grow fuller, partly because an ever-increasing population of probationers and parolees find themselves behind bars for technical violations, such as missing an appointment with a supervisor.
But there are only so many beds in Kansas' prisons, state officials say, which is why the House has passed a bill to lock up fewer convicts, and for shorter periods of time. The Kansas Senate is expected to vote on the bill within two weeks.
“The prison overpopulation crisis has reached critical mass,” said Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, who chairs the House committee on corrections and justice that helped pass HB 2170. “If things continue as they are, we’re going to have two options: spend a lot more money building new prisons or release some people early, possibly including dangerous inmates.”
Research and reform
To avoid that choice, Rubin and other legislators, along with corrections officials and non-profit research groups, designed the bill to give judges and probation officers more options in dealing with violators and require post-release supervision for every inmate who leaves prison.
The bill won’t release any inmates from prison early, Rubin said, or reduce penalties for new crimes. The idea, he said, is to concentrate resources on high-risk offenders and prevent people from being sentenced to long prison terms.
Today, more than 9,000 people are incarcerated in Kansas prisons. If nothing else changes, Rubin said, there will be another 2,000 in the next 10 years, and more after that. “I’m as tough on crime as you’re going to find,” he said. “But I’m also a realist.”
To get a grip on the prison population, the state is once again turning to advice from the non-profit Council of State Governments Justice Center, which advised earlier efforts to reform the state’s parole system in 2007. Since then, several other states have made similar changes, including Missouri last year.
Gary Fuhr, a retired Missouri state legislator, was involved in passing a law there in August that sought to address some of the same problems as the current law in Kansas. “We have empowered our probation and parole officers to deliver swift and sure penalties,” he said. “And more community-based resources for offenders, to help them get jobs and be productive citizens.”
In Kansas, the bill would allow courts to impose six-day jail sentences and prison terms of 120 or 180 days on people who violate the terms of their probation or parole. Judges today often have no penalty at their disposal except a long prison sentence that takes weeks to hand down. The six-day jail sentences would be delivered more quickly, and served in two- and three-day portions, intended to respond proportionately to violations like failed drug tests and missed court appointments. Judges still could revoke a person’s probation and send them to prison for their whole sentence, or they could choose to let probation and parole officers employ the new intermediate methods.
In a year, Kansas could have 600 fewer people in prison, Rep. Rubin said. That would mean millions in savings, because every prison bed costs $25,000 per year, in addition to allowing Kansas to put off more than $22 million in prison construction costs.
Other provisions of the bill would give offenders — a large number of whom are in the system because of substance abuse problems or mental health issues — a fairer chance at rehabilitation, said Jeremy Barclay, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.
“That way, it’s not an all-or-nothing approach,” Barclay said. The savings would allow $3 million to go to probation and parole offices, which would help them make sure no inmate leaves prison without some kind of supervision, which often happens now.
“You basically just give them a bus pass and tell them ‘good luck,’” Barclay said. “Whether low-risk or high-risk, they at least would have someone to help them reintegrate into the community.”
How the new system of gradual penalties will work in Douglas County remains to be seen.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said prosecutors in his office might not be as willing to negotiate probation agreements for defendants if the penalties are not as certain. In addition, his office may have to deal with a wave of appeals as defendants argue whether the penalty they received for violating probation was fair.
“If these things go into effect, it’s going to change the way we do things,” he said. “That may mean we ask for more time in prison.”