Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett argues that expanding mental health and drug rehabilitative treatment will help people avoid the cascading supervision violations that land them in prison. We don’t disagree. In fact, we believe Bennett could offer those services through diversion.
He’s simply choosing not to.
But hospitals aren’t responsible for the mass incarceration of mentally ill and drug-dependent people. Prosecutors are. Our corrections system needs correction and focusing on healthcare instead of diversion leaves a wicked system intact and prosecutors blameless.
Prosecutors are among the most powerful people in the justice system. They decide who gets charged and with what, and recommend punishment. They wield enormous influence. Let’s start with them.
Prosecutors should more often utilize diversion — a tool allowing some individuals to avoid criminal charges in exchange for completing the kinds of programs (treatment, community service or paying restitution), Bennett says he supports.
Kansas’ diversion average for felony cases is 6.3%. Sedgwick County’s rate is 1.29%. We’re overwhelming prisons, busting budgets and destroying families. The ACLU of Kansas argues that increasing the state average to the national average of 9% saves more than $240 million.
Bennett has repeatedly said he does not agree with our diversion rate averages. He said diversion policies vary municipality to municipality and state to state. He’s questioned how we arrived at an “average” despite such wide variances.
But these numbers originate in prosecutors’ offices and are then reported to courts. If he has new data, we’d love to see it, but we only have the numbers his office reported.
With regard to those cascading re-offenses leading to prison, he’s right. We also appreciate his desire to provide offenders greater healthcare access.
But he could do that now, through diversion.
Some Kansas counties currently offer mental health/drug rehabilitation diversions. Johnson County has a mental health diversion program. They’ve repurposed resources otherwise used for prosecuting non-violent offenders.
The question for prosecutors not offering such services becomes: If people need help, why are we prosecuting them?
And boy, do we prosecute people in Kansas. Here’s the reality:
- Kansas’ prison population has nearly quadrupled since 1980
- Kansas spent $347 million on corrections in 2016
- Corrections costs rose 179% between 1985 and 2016
Sedgwick County’s solution? A $6.8 million jail expansion offering more space for prosecutors to prosecute.
Instead of expanding his capacity to incarcerate, perhaps Bennett should invest in the kinds of expanded health care services he’s said people desperately need to avoid the downward spiral of reoffending and incarceration.
There’s something perverse about a society spending lavishly to incarcerate people, but unwilling to pay for the care people need to avoid incarceration.
Bennett asks a fair question: Will every offender offered diversion avoid prison?
Would healthcare expansion help?
But we accomplish more, faster, if more prosecutors — Bennett in particular because his county sends more people to prison than any other Kansas county — chose diversion more often.
Right now, he’s simply choosing not to.
Lauren Bonds is the interim executive director and legal director of the ACLU of Kansas