Criminal Justice Task Force Could Tackle The Bigger Picture, But No Changes For Now

Mar 4, 2019
Originally published on March 4, 2019 5:14 am

Bills on drug sentencing, probation and marijuana possession stalled in the Kansas Legislature this year. Instead, lawmakers continue to consider appointing a task force to address the criminal justice system as a whole.

bill introduced late last month would create the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission, a panel of lawmakers, law enforcement officers, legal experts, judges, lawyers, advocates, clergy and mental health providers and others.

State Rep. Russ Jennings, Republican chair of the House corrections committee, said most laws pertaining to criminal justice address only one issue at a time, rather than looking at the system as a whole. He wants the commission to address criminal justice as a system, rather than as a set of individual issues.

“The commission would be able to take it really in-depth,” he said, “not just single pieces of the system one at a time, but rather a comprehensive review of our system.”

The commission would review criminal sentencing, probation, parole, data systems and drug and job training programs for people who commit crimes. The group will also assess diversion programs intended to keep people out of prison.

The state’s prison system of more than 10,000 adult inmates is currently more than 100 people over its capacity. It’s struggled to hire corrections officers, health care workers and other staff.

Rep. John Carmichael of Wichita, a Democratic member of the House corrections committee, said a major goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated people in Kansas.

“In a global scale, which people do we need to incarcerate for the public safety?” Carmichael said. “And which people can we better treat and deal outside of the state penal system?”

A number of bills introduced and debated this session intended to do just that.

Some measures would have reduced the state’s prison population by hundreds, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission, which has warned lawmakers about rising population projections. But the bills didn’t get a hearing in committee or didn’t meet the Legislature’s deadline for a floor vote — meaning the ideas are unlikely to advance this year:

  • Striking down felony possession of marijuana, estimated to reduce the state’s prison population by at least 92 in a year
  • Letting people on probation potentially get time off their sentences in exchange for good behavior, estimated to reduce the prison population by at least 121 in a year
  • No longer requiring people convicted of drug crimes to register in a state database, estimated to reduce the prison population by at least 54 in a year

The bill creating the criminal justice commission remains on the table, awaiting discussion in the House Committee on Appropriations.

Lauren Bonds, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said she was disappointed that many of the bills didn’t make it through.

“We’re missing opportunities here,” Bonds said. “That being said, we’ve seen success of commissions and task forces in the past.”

Bonds said she was optimistic about the people appointed to the commission, and its potential to change the state’s criminal justice system on many levels, including probation, diversion, mental health and prisons.

“It's a kind of a tacit admission that the problem is big and it's pervasive,” she said. “We're messing up and we're not providing people with realistic opportunities to avoid prison.”

Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.

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