Gov. Sam Brownback said he has high hopes that matching outgoing inmates with faith-driven mentors will cut the number of offenders who return to prison.
At the Out4Life conference in Wichita on Monday, Brownback said it's his goal to match every exiting inmate — about 5,000 a year — with a mentor to help him or her re-enter society as smoothly as possible.
"This is serious, it's going to be tough," Brownback told the group of prison ministry supporters. "But it's going to be critically important. We get it right, the cost to the state goes down, crime goes down in the state."
But the governor did acknowledge there are risks.
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"We get it wrong, people will say, 'Well that's all this kind of soft-headed stuff with prisons. Just lock them up and throw the key away, that's what I told you you ought to do in the first place,' " Brownback said.
The Out4Life conference is being presented by Prison Fellowship, a nationwide group that promotes ministry in prisons and church support for offenders after their release.
The main purpose is to unite prison ministry groups across the state into a network of six regions, to work with corrections and social-service staff to help ex-offenders in their areas.
While promising cooperation from his Corrections and Social and Rehabilitation Services departments, Brownback warned that there probably won't be much if any new state or federal money for programs because of ongoing budget crises.
In a question-and-answer session with the governor, several prison ministry advocates identified issues they face when helping offenders return to the community.
Among those are addiction problems and reductions in prison-education programs that help inmates earn their high school equivalency diplomas.
One of the advocates told the governor that former prisoners have a lot of trouble getting driver's licenses, especially now that birth certificates are required.
Brownback said he hadn't thought of that and would have his staff examine the possibility of issuing restricted licenses based on prison ID, to allow ex-offenders to drive to and from work only.
Not for Christians only
Micheal Dean, a former inmate who now works for My Friend's House, a Christian social service group in Sabetha, drew several rounds of applause when he told Brownback how the mentoring he received turned his life around.
"I don't want to be recovered, I want to be delivered, from alcoholism and this drug addiction that we talk about that's sin," he said. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our problems.
"I do think that this budget situation is the best thing that could happen to the state of Kansas for this reason: It's made the churches step up and do what the church is supposed to be doing," Dean added. "Thank you for what you're doing, thank you for your faith in Jesus Christ."
In reply, Brownback emphasized that the program is not for Christians only.
"Obviously as a state we don't put forward a faith position," Brownback said. "What we're asking is for people of heart in all faiths and people of goodwill to come forward and help out with this.
"And what we're also saying is we're not excluding people of faith. That's the important piece about it, is that we want to engage people and we want to engage them at the heart level."
Of the approximately 5,000 inmates released last year, nearly 1,100 were returned to prison on violations of their conditions of release, said Brownback's Corrections Secretary, Ray Roberts.
About 750 of those cases involved drug abuse, he said.
Brownback said the purpose and measure of the mentoring initiative is to get those numbers down.
"You know what the target is here, it's reduction in recidivism rates," Brownback said. "So we're shooting for a hard number that is known today and will be known next year.
"So we can have a lot of good conferences and people feel good about it. But if it doesn't drop the recidivism rate, the effort's probably going to be discontinued and we'll try something else."
Earlier, Roberts opened the conference quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
"To change someone, you must first love them and they must know that they are loved," Roberts said, invoking the civil rights icon as he encouraged the Christian activists to increase their efforts to help offenders turn their lives around and successfully re-enter society.
"I think the volunteers are in a particularly good role or good position to carry that out," he said. "They are in a unique position to kind of reach beyond the bounds of a prison cell and ignite an inmate's or an offender's will to turn their life around."
Roberts said he's putting safeguards in place to ensure that offenders who may not be completely reformed don't try to victimize their mentors.
In cases where that could be a concern, he said, the mentoring could be done in a group setting or in a controlled environment, such as a local parole office.
Roberts said faith-based efforts have already had an impact in Kansas and his goal is to expand that under Brownback, who has a strong interest in partnering with faith-based groups in several areas of government service.
"Although we don't have a lot of money in our system right now, we can be innovative, and over the years we've done things like build spiritual life centers (in prisons) that didn't cost any money for the state," Roberts said. "Even though we're in a hard patch financially, we're not going to let budget restraints create an opportunity for us to stop moving in the direction we need to move."
Roberts called on the faith-based groups to form a strong coalition of volunteers across the state.
"During the conference, members of my staff will work with you to do some brainstorming and to look at some ways to network, so that we can be successful in helping to transform the lives of offenders and those of their families," Roberts said. "Together we can and will make a long-lasting difference, not only in our communities but for the greater good of our society as a whole."