Addiction derailed their lives. These Kansans say the criminal justice system made it worse
Kansans with substance use problems say they are falling through the cracks of a legal system that’s more concerned with punishing them than getting them sober.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Samantha Bishop used drugs to feel better about herself. That, coupled with social pressures, drove her ever deeper into addiction.
“It just kind of snowballed and became more of an everyday thing,” she said. “I had to have it to be able to function.”
One day when Bishop was dealing drugs so she could buy more for herself, she sold to an undercover officer. That landed her in prison for more than two years.
Four years later, she’s sober. In some respects, her story represents success because she recovered. But Bishop and others who went through the Kansas criminal justice system contend the state is not doing enough to support people with addiction.
“There’s a lack of compassion on the criminal justice system side. They look at it like, ‘Oh, you're bad. You broke the law,’” she said.
Kansas offers programs to help people recover and avoid jail or prison, but many people who need them don’t have access. Many Kansans sent to jail or prison on drug charges had to drop out of school, became homeless and lost meaningful connections with their children.
Bishop’s daughter has separation anxiety from when her mother went to prison. Bishop admits she made a mistake — like dealing drugs — but she said there would be less trauma if she had been given drug treatment instead of a prison sentence.
Randy Henderson started in law enforcement in 1976 and worked in the trenches of the war on drugs in the narcotics division at the Hutchinson Police Department from 1988 through 1997.
“My job was to arrest drug offenders, put them in jail and I forgot about them, basically,” said Henderson, a retired Reno County Sheriff. “When I came out of there in 1998, I had kind of a rude awakening.”
Henderson realized he needed to change his approach. Despite all the arrests, he didn’t see much progress. As sheriff, he helped create drug treatment and mental health programs in the Reno County jail. The success of that program convinced local elected officials, businesses and donors to establish a drug detox program.
But those changes can be slow-moving considering some community advocates were trying for decades to build the rehab facility.
“We’ve all got to open up our eyes and not just look at being the enforcers of the law,” Henderson said.
The hundreds of law enforcement agencies in Kansas each respond to addiction differently. Police have historically responded the same way Henderson did. Some are starting to change their thinking but there “are far more (of) the old mindset,” said Hutchinson Police Chief Jeffrey Hooper.
Hooper said police often see people in crisis. And don’t see those same people again until another crisis strikes. So he’s formed a crisis response team of police, mental health and substance use experts. This team checks in more often to connect people with the resources they need to divert them away from jail or prison.
“We had to do better,” Hooper said. “We had to fund something up front to keep them out of the criminal justice system because that just compounds their problem. Not only do they have a substance misuse disorder, but now they have a criminal record.”
He hopes more will follow in his footsteps and hopes that more police can take a more sympathetic approach to people who get in trouble because they’re battling drug problems.
Bishop said the stigma of drug addiction is real. She recalled times she didn’t call the police during domestic abuse situations because she worried how police might respond. Meanwhile, the relationship made Bishop feel worse and compounded the problem.
“Drugs (were) present and (I) didn't really want to create more chaos,” she said. “It’s an unspoken rule. You just don't talk to the cops or call the cops because there is a chance that you will go to jail for whatever it is that you're doing.”
Kansas had 2,392 drug probation sentences in 2013. That number increased every year between 2013 and 2019 and peaked at 3,939 drug probation sentences, according to data from the Kansas sentencing commission. A majority of those sentences, above 70%, were for possession.
The number suddenly dropped in 2020, though addiction counselors, judges and attorneys say the situation has not improved. One addiction specialist said, “these last two years have been the worst I’ve ever seen.”
More probation sentences mean more Kansans with addiction are going through the court system. A person could take multiple paths when they are first arrested on a drug charge, but what happens next depends on the person and the circumstances of their case — and which county they happen to get arrested in or the particular judge they face.
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay said a handful of judges hear cases like that in his county and each one may take a different approach. That response can vary county by county and no one clear outcome exists for people caught with drugs. But Kagay said he doesn’t want to send people to prison.
He said things like a lack of regional drug treatment facilities can make diverting people to treatment harder.
“There (are) not enough resources that have been allocated to addressing the issues of both drug addiction and mental illness in the state of Kansas,” he said. “We’re better off than where we were five years ago. But we're not where we need to be, not even close.”
Specialty drug courts provide wrap-around services to people on certain charges. Those charges do not need to be drug charges, but they have to be related to addiction, like writing bad checks to purchase drugs. Chief District Judge Nicholas St. Peter’s program serves Cowley County and is one of the oldest drug courts in Kansas. It has law enforcement, treatment providers, county prosecutors, defense attorneys and others who all work to help people recover.
“Drug court is an extremely intense program,” St. Peter said. “It’s not designed for your first-time substance abuse conviction of somebody who's a recreational, occasional drug user.”
Judges who spoke with the Kansas News Service said building a stronger support network around someone is a more productive way to handle addiction. Lower level offenses won’t result in prison time for someone, but giving them probation and sending them back out to the same situation they came from may not yield better results.
These specialty courts are becoming more popular, but they can be difficult to start. There are 13 drug courts programs statewide and less than half of the judicial districts in the state have one.
Chief District Judge Lori Bolton Fleming doesn’t have a drug court in the 11th district — which is Cherokee, Crawford and Labette County — but she is interested in starting one. Shortages of defense attorneys, funding or transportation issues can all hamper the court’s creation.
One judge said drug courts, while beneficial, only add to the overall workload of the people involved and it doesn’t bring a pay increase.
“Drug court or any specialty court catches people who wouldn’t otherwise fall through the cracks,” Bolton Fleming said.
Aside from drug courts, people on probation can be eligible for 18 months of drug treatment as part of a special state program. Kira Johnson, who runs the program for the Kansas Sentencing Commission, said it’s designed to divert people away from prison.
But that intervention program is beyond the reach of many of the people who need it most. Only 38.2% of people on all drug probation sentences got the services in fiscal year 2020. The Kansas Legislature recently approved changes that could allow more people to access the program, but some barriers still remain.
To be eligible, someone must be high needs according to certain treatment screenings and can't have three past convictions for possession. That’s prompted criticisms that the program penalizes failure.
“Whether they get it this time or next time, it’s not our place to try to judge and figure out when that will be, it's just to provide them services and try to help them to get them where they are functioning healthy members of our society,” said Crystal Norman, executive director of addiction recovery provider Valley Hope.
Johnson said she would love to treat everyone until they recover, but there has to be a cutoff to ensure tax dollars are spent responsibly.
Advocates argue spending upfront will save money in the long run because the annual cost of housing inmates in state prison is $30,100. Norman said if she had the same amount of money the state used to put people in prison or jail, she could provide therapy, case management and all other kinds of treatment.
“It’s a waste of money, putting them in jail and prison to expect them to come out somehow cured when we never provided treatment,” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Martony Cowan knows how to beat addiction. As a juvenile, he struggled. But he improved. He got a job and he graduated. Then, his mother died.
“I don’t want to say it’s an excuse, but I lost my mom,” said Cowan, who is held at the Winfield Correctional Facility. “I was going through a dark point in my life and I just relapsed. One time turned into two times and two times turned into plenty … until I got arrested.”
Cowan bought larger quantities of drugs and when he was caught he was considered a drug dealer. Because of his charges, Cowan was not offered drug treatment programs and said he was sentenced to just over five years in prison.
Jails and prisons have a large population of people struggling with addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 65% of inmates in state prison have active substance misuse issues. The Kansas Department of Corrections’ drug treatment program had around 750 people, or about 8% of the inmate population, in fiscal year 2021.
The Kansas News Service reported in February that nobody tracks how many Kansas jails offer a combination of medication and counseling to inmates, but few do so nationwide. Going to jail or prison can abruptly stop drug treatment if nothing is offered while inside, and talking to doctors to start treatment can be difficult. Kansas prisons offer medication, like Vivitrol, though it isn’t uncommon for people to go cold turkey in prison, multiple inmates told the Kansas News Service.
The Department of Corrections deferred any comments to emailed statements. Carol Pitts, spokesperson for the department, said recently approved legislation currently in the Statehouse expands drug treatment programs at the Lansing and Winfield prisons. Prisons also offer Alcoholics Anonymous programs. All told, Pitts said, “current resources allow the department to reach almost half of the residents” with substance use issues.
The state prison’s treatment programs have been called life-changing by some inmates, but it is inaccessible to others.
Cowan is working a private industry job. He works when the treatment is offered and the staff who run the programs have gone home by the time he is off. Some people are also sent back to prison for only a few months if they violate parole. Shorter sentences and sanctions may not offer enough time for someone to take the four-to-six-month long treatment program.
Sherry White, founder and executive director of High Point Advocacy and Resource Center, Inc., said arresting people instead of helping them can lead to future legal troubles. Around 80% of the people High Point serves are on probation or parole and almost all of those sentences are drug-related.
To help people recover, addiction recovery specialists recommend keeping people in their community with friends and family, having stable work and housing. Jails and prisons can do the exact opposite.
Going to prison can make it harder for inmates to save up for a security deposit on an apartment or a down payment on a house. From July 2016 through July 2021, KDOC released 5,238 inmates on indigent status, which means having less than $12 in a cumulative spendable amount in the past month.
The left-leaning Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless and 27% of people with records are unemployed.
Even those with money now face the challenges of being a former inmate. White’s son was arrested for drug charges and struggled to find housing despite having money for rent, so he lived in her basement.
“Once you're in the system, it's hard to break out,” White said. “You can not incarcerate a disease out of somebody.”
People with felony drug charges are not eligible for food assistance and Kansas has one of the most burdensome drug offender registries in the country. People on the registry must check in with law enforcement every few months, share all social media handles and renew their driver's license yearly. Not doing so could put them back in prison.
Fines and fees associated with the court system can also stack up, which can lead to future legal consequences. A survey by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that 38% of people committed other crimes, like selling drugs, to pay off that debt.
The state Legislature has discussed changing some of these laws. Allowing food assistance for people with drug felonies passed out of committee but didn’t advance. Legislation that creates exit mechanisms for people to get off the drug registry passed both chambers.
More comprehensive changes were also passed over. A bill exempting drug offenders from ever going on the registry hasn’t had a hearing. Another proposal to expand the drug sentencing grid and reduce possible penalties for drug charges also stalled.
Rep. Stephen Owens, a Heston Republican, chairs the corrections and juvenile justice committee. His committee worked on a handful of key legislation advocates and others were pushing for.
Owens was frustrated to see some of the changes fail, but he said the state is working to make life easier for people in recovery.
“I see how these things will make a significant difference in people’s lives. I understand it very well,” he said. “The broader (Legislature) has got to understand its benefits as well. And that’s challenging.”
In this session, the Legislature created a specialty court resources fund and a group to oversee that money in hopes of expanding these courts, which could expand drug and mental health courts.
Cowan said when he gets out of prison, he is going to move out of state to avoid post-prison restrictions. He wants to become a lineman and did take a class in prison that will help him, though he would be further along with his career goals if he didn’t spend all this time in prison.
“I'm now sober and plan on staying sober … so I guess (the system) works. But it was definitely overkill,” he said. “It wasn't necessary to this extent … It has done me more harm than good.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at email@example.com.
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