A few years ago, Kansas had figured out how to control its prison population. Solved the equation. Become a national model.
No more. Kansas is officially out of beds for male prisoners, with a population last week of 8,411 — above the system's capacity of 8,259. In 10 years, the state is projected to be nearly 2,000 beds short.
So Kansas corrections leaders have started talking seriously about two options: Either find millions of dollars to house more prisoners — when the state is struggling to pay for schools and social services — or start letting them go.
Another option — crowding prisoners — would just lead to violence and lawsuits, prison officials say.
Many states, including Mississippi, have already retreated
from years of tough crime laws. Kansas experts are looking at the Mississippi solution of making nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after they have served 25 percent of their sentences.
Another possibility suggested by the Kansas Sentencing Commission is to increase "good time" credit for some inmates from 15 or 20 percent to up to 50 percent, meaning prisoners who stay out of trouble could be released after serving half their sentences.
But early releases in either form would violate promises the state made to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals, said Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman.
"I don't know how we can do that to the victims of the state of Kansas," he said.
Even nonviolent inmates such as drug addicts and burglars are mostly chronic criminals who will get out and cause trouble, he said, and the state is already failing to revoke parolees who should be put back in prison.
"They entrusted a job to police, prosecutors and judges and now they're saying we don't care about the effort," Gorman said.
Wyandotte County District Judge Ernest L. Johnson, chairman of the Sentencing Commission, agreed that early releases would be a step back from the state's sentencing grid system, meant to impose consistent and true prison time.
"But what do you do when there isn't enough money? You've got to change something," he said.
Kansas' good decade
Advocates of change point to a national poll released last month that seemed to indicate support for early releases.
"Our sense is the public has been out ahead of elected officials on this," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project.
In a project poll, 91 percent agreed with this statement: "It does not matter whether a nonviolent offender is in prison for 21 or 24 or 27 months. What really matters is the system does a better job of making sure that when an offender does get out, he is less likely to commit another crime."
A lighter hand by other cash-strapped states has turned a big corner, experts said. The overall number of inmates in state prisons declined last year for the first time since 1972.
In Kansas, however, new admissions jumped more than 13 percent in the fiscal year ending in June.
From 2000 to 2009, Kansas' prison population grew only 3.6 percent, the second-lowest growth rate in the nation. Only about a half-dozen states showed declines in those years. They acted early to reduce the number of inmates, the Justice Policy Institute reported this year.
Roger Werholtz, Kansas secretary of corrections, explained what happened in that decade and possibly why the smooth ride ended for Kansas: In 2000, the largest source of new prisoners was parolees who committed new crimes or violated the conditions of their releases. Starting in about 2005, a bipartisan effort by lawmakers attacked that with programs for parolees, including education, substance abuse treatment and sex offender treatment. They also expanded home detention and started day-reporting centers and supportive housing for mentally ill and developmentally disabled offenders.
The yearly number of offenders returning to prison dropped from 55 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2008. Kansas got a reputation.
"Kansas has been the model; we were on top of it all," said Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood and chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight.
More new prisoners
In the past two years, $8.2 million in cuts eliminated almost all those Kansas programs, but so far parolee-return rates have not gone up dramatically. Instead, most of the increase has come from new admissions.
Werholtz and other Sentencing Commission members offer suggestions on what happened:
* Since 2005, the Legislature has approved 97 measures that increased penalties.
* County authorities have lost funding for alternative sentencing options, and judges may feel they have no option but prison.
* Although crime rates have held steady, better police work is catching more criminals.
Werholtz is requesting $8.2 million in next year's budget to restore the parolee programs. Without that, he said, parolees will start going back to prison in higher numbers.
He also is requesting $6.6 million in the 2012 budget to house prisoners elsewhere. He also has options to add prison space, costing $5.4 million to $21.6 million.
Even the Mississippi solution could not be used in time to avoid growing shortfalls next year, he said. It would take too long to pass a controversial law, change protocols and hold parole hearings. It also would take too long to build prisons, even if the money was there.
The Mississippi model
Helen Pedigo, Kansas Sentencing Commission executive director, said expanding "good time" would be the fastest way.
Society needs to imprison people it is afraid of, not people it is mad at, she said.
The prison commissioner in Mississippi persuaded politicians of the same thing.
Colloton recently gave other Sentencing Commission members copies of a Governing magazine article on the Mississippi approach. The article credits Chris Epps, the state's prison commissioner, with carving out success by working with an unlikely combination of Mississippi politicians and the American Civil Liberties Union.
As a team, Epps said Friday, they got passed a 2008 law to allow parole for nonviolent offenders after they served 25 percent of their time, instead of up to 85 percent.
They used a new risk-assessment tool to evaluate the nonviolent offenders case by case, and the Parole Board released about 60 percent of them, he said.
The net result in the first 14 months: About 3,100 inmates released an average of 13 months early, the closing of 13 prison units, and a prison population decline of more than 2,000. The $348 million corrections budget in 2008 is down to $331 million.
Experts report that 121 of the inmates released early returned to prison — only five of them for new crimes.
Margaret Winter, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project, had sued the state over prison conditions. She said the outcome was a win for everyone.
"Release those who don't need to be there and you have more room for those who do," she said.
Epps said he would soon use expanded home detention or other options to again tame the population, which has started increasing at the rate of 35 inmates a month.
He said he would rather see the $40.67 daily cost for each inmate day spent on education.
"Our inmates come in with sixth-grade reading levels, and 80 percent have alcohol or drug problems or both," he said. "I'd rather stop it on the front end."
Gorman, the Wyandotte County prosecutor, sees it differently if prisoners in Kansas get out early.
"We promised all this truth in sentencing and then we're saying, 'We're not going to be so truthful,' " he said. "Then people have lied to the citizens."