Lawmakers were given few choices last spring with how to address overcrowding in the state’s prison system, leading to the approval by the State Finance Council for funding to send inmates to the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz. But other choices are available and our neighbors in Oklahoma have charted a path the state should consider as one step in much-needed criminal justice reform measures.
Spurred by a vote of Oklahomans three years ago to reclassify certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, lawmakers passed a bill making the changes apply to people who were already serving felony sentences for those crimes.
More than 900 men and women were eligible and early this month, the state approved the commutation of sentences for at least half of those inmates. Their projections include savings of $11.9 million dollars and 2,000 empty prison beds by the end of the year.
Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt praised the effort for “implementing the will of the people” and called the commutation “an important step for criminal justice reform in our state.”
It’s time for Kansas to take similar measures.
We recognize that criminal justice reform can’t be mirrored exactly to fit what other states are doing because each state has different sentencing laws, but we can look to our prison population to identify low-level, nonviolent offenders who would be good candidates for early release.
The issue of overcrowding isn’t going away in Kansas prisons. Our prison population has increased by more than 1,000 people in the past decade, and projections into 2028 show Kansas will increase that number by another 2,000 if we don’t act quickly to make changes.
The state recently sent 120 inmates to Arizona at a cost of nearly $9,000 per day. It’s expected that an additional 240 inmates will go to the Eloy facility by the year’s end and the contract permits up to 600 inmates for a total cost of $16 million.
This past session saw the approval of a Criminal Justice Reform Commission, and legislators have divided into subcommittees to discuss various options from sentencing reform to mental health needs.
We encourage them to present the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly with a comprehensive plan that alleviates the overcrowding we’re experiencing today and eliminates the need to house inmates in Arizona. Their plan should also identify opportunities to better address the treatment of mental and substance abuse issues that are impacting criminal behavior and straining resources in penal institutions ill-equipped to treat behavioral health problems.
In no way are we advocating for sentence reform for those convicted of violent crimes. Our prisons are in place to ensure the public safety, and it's important that violent, dangerous individuals serve out their sentences.
Our advocacy for reform stems from recognition that many men and women incarcerated today are there for nonviolent crimes related to substance abuse and mental health challenges. An investment in their recovery and well-being through suitable rehabilitation and support programs outside of a prison setting is a better option and something we should explore.