Your Turn: State’s criminal justice system is broken

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

Our criminal justice system is broken.

But right now, if we lift our voices, we have a real chance to make it better.

There is a growing, bipartisan consensus in Kansas that we’re putting too many people in jail and prison, and we’re putting them there for the wrong reasons.

I’ve been a denominational leader in the United Church of Christ for nearly 25 years. My faith tells me that we’re making a serious mistake with policies that promote mass incarceration. We have work to do to address decades of policies and neglect that have resulted in an unequal and ineffective criminal justice system.

I deeply believe in justice, reconciliation and redemption. We see it in our churches and in our communities regularly. People can be restored and transformed, but they need systems that support and encourage transformation, not barriers that block and prevent it. The gospel teaches us that we are all children of God, and when we look at those who have been incarcerated, we are still looking at the children of God.

Today, our jails and prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders and with people with mental illness. They don’t belong there. And that’s why I support comprehensive and common-sense reforms that will make our communities safer and put more people into programs that can help them transform their lives.

Since 1978, Kansas’ prison population has exploded, from about 2,300 to nearly 10,000 people in 2014. And without smart reform, that number is going to continue to grow.

There’s also a tremendous racial disparity in Kansas prisons. While African Americans and Hispanics make up 17 percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly half of the prison population.

It’s not right and we have to fix it.

There’s a growing consensus about what we can do to make things better. Here is a list:

• We need to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders. The so-called War on Drugs hasn’t worked, and as the epidemic has reached into more and more families and communities, we know that there is a better way.

• Diversion programs can help those facing minor drug charges to successfully address their addiction. Such programs are much more effective and less costly than prison.

• Jail and prison are not places for the mentally ill, we have turned prisons into holding tanks for people who need help. Once locked away, it becomes harder and harder for persons with mental illness to get the help needed to stabilize their lives; help that can be provided more effectively and at less cost in their communities.

• We need to improve programs for those who are released from prison to re-enter the community. There are not adequate programs and resources in place to support successful re-entry. The lack of supportive re-entry programs too often leads to re-offending.

• Reduce the use of solitary confinement, which can be devastating, particularly to the mentally ill.

• We need to ensure that just being accused of a crime does not result in inappropriate seizure of personal property.

• And perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that justice serves all Kansans equally and treats all of our communities fairly. Good public policy comes from having good information so we need to strengthen data collection around arrests to ensure that persons of color are not unfairly targeted.

We know that our current system is broken, and the challenge we face is to literally restore justice to the criminal justice system. We will benefit from these reforms, the state will save money, our communities will be safer and the citizens of Kansas will have a system that seeks to embody a commitment to justice for all.

There is new energy and a new opportunity for us to work together to make these important reforms happen. People of faith must be part of this important work for all of God’s children.

— Edith Guffey is a Lawrence resident and conference minister for the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ. She also is a member of the Kansans For Smart Justice Coalition.