SUBSCRIBE NOW

State commission forwards criminal justice reform items to Legislature

Titus Wu
The Topeka Capital-Journal
Rep. Stephen Owens speaks during a meeting of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission.

The Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission will send criminal justice items for adoption or consideration by state lawmakers next session, it decided on Monday.

Around 20 recommendations, ranging from the courts to parole supervision, were discussed and will be forwarded.

The group had been meeting multiple times to examine ways to reduce recidivism and incarceration costs, amid a time when the state budget has been impacted by the coronavirus.

The commission endorsed last session’s House Bill 2708, which would identify money for defendants on diversion programs. It would also allow prosecutors to sign agreements with court services and community corrections for supervision.

Defendants who successfully complete the drug abuse diversion program would not be convicted, but those who don’t would be convicted as usual, said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett. The bill had been making its way last session, but died due to a shortened session as a result of the pandemic, said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston.

The commission also supported a package allowing establishment of more specialty courts in Kansas, which the chief of the Kansas Supreme Court had also backed. Completion of a specialty court program, generally 18 months, would allow a judge to expunge conviction or reduce a probationary period.

Some commission members, however, worried about the cost of what it would all entail.

“Generally the individuals that are presented to these courts are accompanied by third parties,” said Bill Persinger, CEO of Valeo Behavioral Health Care. “You have mental health providers or others, so there’s a cost on that end as well.”

But the package would also establish a specialty court funding committee that would secure federal money and potentially legislative funds for those specialty courts.

State Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked for the group to adopt securing more funding and adding beds to certain substance treatment and geriatric facilities. Owens said much of those recommendations were already in the budget but were taken out due to COVID-19-related shortfalls. They’ll likely be in place when revenue allows so.

“They all boil down to money, to create capacity to allow services to be delivered and avoid the binary choice of in a prison or on the street,” said the attorney general.

Shelly Williams, community corrections director for Riley County, included items such as giving court services and corrections officers the ability to provide a certificate of ID. Only a parole office can currently issue those, which could be troublesome to access for those not near one.

“This really enables offenders to get IDs, which leads to employment among other things,” she said.

The commission also adopted the idea of earned compliance and strengthening of early discharge mechanisms for people on supervision.

“We wholeheartedly agree that incentivizing offenders on probation, just like we do on the incarcerated population, is a great idea,” said Scott Schultz of the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

In short, courts would be required to set a hearing at the 50% mark of probation. If in substantial compliance with probation terms, the person is eligible for modification or even early termination of probation. In addition, there would be a seven day’s credit for each month of compliance.

But Bennett brought up the potential difficulty with COVID-19 on holding all those hearings as something to note.

On the subject of supervision, the group also supported creation of a work group to examine and consolidate current supervision cases, as well as creating more standardized conditions of supervision.

“Standardized conditions of supervision vary across the state in the number, the type, and complexity,” said Williams, noting around 1200 offenders are on dual supervision in Kansas. “It creates duplicative appointments, duplicative assessments, duplicative drug tests, duplicative drug testing fees, sanctions... that creates conflicting conditions for the individuals.”

Among other items that stood out: getting the state to look into a co-responder system, which would pair behavioral health workers with law enforcement in responding to emergencies. The commission also backed having behavior health and corrections liaisons to address the lack of collaboration between community mental health centers and substance abuse facilities.

While supporting the idea, Ford County Sheriff Bill Carr made a note getting behavioral and mental health professionals out in western Kansas would be a challenge.

One thing that the commission specifically made sure to leave as an idea to look into, rather than for adoption: Reducing the severity level of all personal use drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Proponents cited the barriers having a felony would pose for those reentering society, from housing to employment.

But Police Chief Todd Ackerman said the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police would probably oppose this, saying there needs to be a deterrent for such crimes. Ultimately, most members acknowledged the controversial, political nature of such a recommendation and agreed to have more discussion on it.