Civil rights groups urge Kansas criminal justice reform measures

? A coalition of civil rights groups and advocates for the poor on Monday urged Kansas lawmakers to pass a package of criminal justice reform measures that they say would save the state millions of dollars a year and reduce the mass incarceration of minorities for nonviolent offenses.

“Too many people are being sent to prison for too long, for too trivial of reasons, costing us taxpayers too much, and doing too great of a harm to communities in the process,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

Kubic was joined by representatives from a dozen other advocacy groups that make up Kansans for Smart Justice.

He said the ACLU is helping spearhead similar coalitions in several other states around the country.

Their agenda in Kansas includes passage of four pieces of legislation:

• Reducing sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

• Reforming civil asset forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize cash and other assets of criminal suspects if it’s believed those assets were gained through illegal activity, even if the suspect is never convicted.

• Improving programs that help ex-convicts re-enter society once they’re released.

• And expanding the use of diversion programs that allow suspects, usually first-time offenders, to avoid prosecution and conviction if they agree to certain conditions, such as receiving drug and alcohol treatment or other kinds of therapy.

Several bills are already pending in the Kansas Legislature to deal with those issues. Lawmakers are expected to take up those bills after they return to the Statehouse Wednesday to start the second half of the 2016 legislative session.

Among them is a bill that recently passed the Senate that would reduce penalties for first- and second-time marijuana possession.

Bonita Gooch, editor of the Community Voice, an African-American newspaper in Wichita, argued that there is a racial bias in Kansas when it comes to enforcing drug laws.

Citing her newspaper’s analysis of crime statistics from the Wichita area, she said, “If you were in Wichita and you were an African-American, you were 3.8 times more likely to be arrested and charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana, although nationally there is nothing to say that African-Americans use marijuana at any higher rates.

“What we’ve come to say is, marijuana isn’t the gateway drug, but it is the gateway to prison,” she said.

In 2010, according to information from the ACLU, blacks and Hispanics made up only 17 percent of the population in Kansas, but they made up half the state’s prison population, a level of disparity that was twice the national average.

SuEllen Fried, who works with inmates through the nonprofit group Reaching Out from Within, said Kansas needs to do more to help inmates as they’re being released from prison.

“Ninety-eight percent of all people who are in prison will return to society,” she said. “Fifty to 67 percent of those people will return to prison. That is the recidivism rate nationally.”

Those numbers could come down, she said, if Kansas expanded programs like hers, or the Mentoring for Success program, operated by the Department of Corrections, which works to line up inmates with jobs and other social services after they leave prison.

She also encouraged the state to adopt a “Ban the Box” law that would remove the question on job applications that require people to disclose their criminal history to prospective employers. She said 20 other states have adopted such a law, as have the cities of Topeka and Wichita, and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.

“If someone could apply for a position and not have to list their felony conviction, it would not guarantee employment, but it would get them out of the automatic rejection pile,” she said. “They deserve to have an opportunity to have a face-to-face interview.”

Last week, the House and Senate marked their annual “turnaround day,” the deadline for most bills to pass out of their chamber of origin or else die for the session.

Among the bills that survived the turnaround deadline was House Bill 2699, dealing with civil asset forfeiture, and House Bill 2681, authorizing expanded use of diversion programs.