Crime & Courts

Cuts could end parolee supervision

The head of the Kansas Department of Corrections says that supervision of most parolees will end if the agency sustains more budget cuts.

The warning comes as the Legislature faces an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Most state departments have been asked to submit budgets showing how they would cope with a 5 percent cut.

If forced to cut its budget 5 percent, the Department of Corrections says it would have to lay off about 125 people — about 85 percent of its parole staff, correction officials say.

It would be "shutting down parole essentially. It wouldn't totally shut down, but it would be dramatically reduced," Department of Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said in an interview with The Eagle.

The layoffs would essentially end supervision of most offenders after they leave prison, and it would risk public safety, corrections officials say. Supervision would be limited mainly to those considered at high risk of re-offending.

There would be fewer visits to parolees' homes, less drug and alcohol testing and less GPS monitoring.

Corrections officials say they are concerned about the budget outlook. Ultimately, it will depend on decisions made in the legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

The parole cuts would occur under a possible budget reduction of 5 percent, or $10.6 million, for the Department of Corrections.

"I do not see a 5 percent cut in corrections because I think that would be an unacceptable level of risk," said state Rep. Lee Tafanelli, R-Ozawkie, who serves on a panel that deals with the corrections budget.

Any significant cuts could have a pronounced impact on Wichita and Sedgwick County because many parolees end up here after being released from prison.

The job of a parole officer is to help parolees not commit new crimes that would send them back to prison.

Any cuts would come at a time when the number of parolees is rising. In late November, the number of Kansas parolees stood at 6,081, the highest in 15 years. Of the total, Wichita parole offices were monitoring roughly 1,450 parolees from Sedgwick, Butler, Cowley and Sumner counties. They were being supervised by about 32 parole officers.

The only viable way to cut spending would be to lay off about 125 of the 147 parole staff across the state, said Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

As a result, face-to-face supervision of most parolees would end, Werholtz said. Face-to-face contact would be limited to 500 to 1,000 of the higher risk offenders, out of roughly 6,000 parolees.

Any cuts opposed

Gov. Mark Parkinson has said he opposes more cuts to the corrections system and that because of the cuts, parole supervision has already declined.

"The cuts in corrections in my opinion have already jeopardized public safety," Parkinson said Thursday.

Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said: "Our partnership with parole officers is critical to public safety in this state. And if they're going to cut back ... I see this as a serious problem."

Any cuts in parole officers would be a concern, Stolz said. "I think we should add more."

Under the possible reduction, the only remaining parole staff for parolees coming out of prisons would be 10 parole officers whose positions are funded by federal grants and 12 special-enforcement officers, also funded by federal grants, Miskell said. The special enforcement officers track down parolees who stop reporting to parole officers.

Impact of cuts

The Department of Corrections has already sustained budget cuts of $27.3 million over the past two years, Miskell said. The Department of Corrections budget authorized by the last Legislature was $271.3 million.

Already, about 18.5 parole positions have been left open to meet budget reductions.

Hiring has been put on hold until the governor's recommended budget is presented to the Legislature next month, Werholtz said.

Cuts already have closed two day reporting centers for parolees — one in Wichita and one in Topeka — and some smaller, minimum-security correctional facilities around the state, including the North Unit at El Dorado.

Contracts for transitional housing for high-risk parolees, including some sex offenders and mentally ill offenders, have been eliminated. A limited amount of funds remains for emergency housing.

Treatment for substance abuse — a common problem among parolees that often figures in criminal behavior —"is gone," Werholtz said.

Among the potential cuts:

The state's fiscal problem is leading to the dismantling of programs aimed at making the public more safe by helping parolees not re-offend, Werholtz said.

"The more that we eliminate these kinds of tools ... the harder it is for them (staff) to do their job ... and the greater the probability is we are going to have some sort of adverse event or events ... and the greater the chance that parolees are going to fail," Werholtz said.

To cut spending by $10.6 million, the only two options would be to release people from prison early or cut the parole budget, Werholtz said.

But Werholtz said he doesn't have the authority to release inmates early, leaving parole supervision as the only viable option.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle