Rewriting its stance on criminal justice, League of Women Voters of Kansas emphasizes incarceration alternatives, other measures

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Members of the League of Women Voters of Kansas discuss a change to the organization's position statement on criminal justice issues during a virtual meeting on Jan. 5, 2021.

The League of Women Voters of Kansas has drafted a rewrite of its nearly 50-year-old position statement on criminal justice to emphasize alternatives to incarceration, offender wellness and the elimination of systemic bias.

Marlene Merrill, co-chair of the league’s Position Update Committee, said during a virtual meeting Tuesday that the new draft compared with the current position was “really almost like night and day.”

Merrill, of the Lawrence/Douglas County LWV, led the meeting for around 50 members from all over the state to discuss the new position statement and offer feedback. Local groups will soon meet to discuss the draft and suggest additional edits, and the position will go up for a vote during the group’s April convention, which will also be held virtually.

Some themes are similar, but the new statement focuses more on adult offenders and public safety than the current policy, which also discusses the court system as a whole, state funding and juvenile offenders. Merrill walked meeting attendees through a few additional points that she said the committee wanted to emphasize in the new statement.

• The draft pushes for transparency — “Public safety needs to be proactive in making sure that the public is aware of what they do,” Merrill said. The position statement calls for “transparency and accountability of arresting practices using technology and cameras” and citizen oversight of practices and data on officer conduct.

• The draft emphasizes equity and revising policies to eliminate systemic bias based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and economic status.

• Merrill also noted that the draft calls for own-recognizance bonds for those accused of nonviolent crimes. It suggests implementation of work-release and home visitation procedures to minimize disruptions to people’s family lives.

• The original position statement did call for alternatives to incarceration, such as probation and community-based programs that would allow for restitution to victims. The new draft bumps that topic up to the top, and it emphasizes restorative justice, use of diversions and probation, mental health and substance use treatment, and collaboration between mental health agencies, citizens and law enforcement. It also encourages eliminating the stigma of arrest and incarceration.

• The group opposes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and suggests that judges consider the individual circumstances and the nature of the crime.

• A list of reasons in the current policy statement of why the league opposes the death penalty was condensed to one sentence in the new policy: “The LWVK supports the abolition of the death penalty in Kansas.”

Merrill said that when the committee got started it quickly found that many other states were ahead of Kansas in updating their positions on criminal justice issues. The committee considered those in its revisions to the Kansas League’s position statement, which was originally written in 1972 and has not seen a major update or addition since the early 1980s.

Members made a few other notes and suggestions. For instance, one pointed out that the draft called for “alternative non-discriminatory programs and facilities for women,” but failed to mention transgender people.

One member suggested, to the group’s approval, infusing the organization’s core mission of encouraging people to vote into the position statement. She said the Topeka group had realized during the runup to the 2020 election that many inmates in the Shawnee County Jail were eligible to vote, and suggested that the statement include that those who are eligible be duly registered and have access to ballots if they are incarcerated during an election.

In Kansas, people who have been charged with, but not convicted of, felonies are eligible to vote. So are people who have completed felony sentences and post-release supervision or parole. As the Journal-World reported, four inmates at the Douglas County Jail cast ballots in the 2020 general election.

In addition, the group voiced concern about some conditions of probation and parole that they said can be burdensome to defendants, such as drug testing. A member from Wichita said that transportation and cost could be an issue for those who must report for random urine testing. They might have to leave work to go take a drug test, but they don’t have advance notice so they can’t tell their employers ahead of time; that can jeopardize their jobs, she said.

The League of Women Voters of Kansas and other chapters nationwide have position statements on a number of topics in government, natural resources and social policy. League members study issues before voting on and finalizing the statements, which are intended to help leaders in the organization use public policy positions effectively at the state and local levels, according to the league’s website.

Membership will vote on a final draft of the position statement at a virtual convention scheduled for April 24. More information about the League of Women Voters of Kansas is available online at

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