TOPEKA — Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts told a Senate committee Friday that he sees no major problems with implementing a decision by Gov. Sam Brownback to abolish the state parole board and replace it with an in-house panel of corrections officials.
But Roberts — appointed to his job less than a month ago — faced skeptical questioning from some of the senators over whether the department could avoid conflict of interest if its employees serve as jailer, prosecutor and judge on parole decisions.
At issue is an executive reorganization order issued by Brownback to abolish the parole board, a three-member group that decides whether current inmates should be released before serving their full sentences and whether ex-convicts accused of violating parole conditions should be sent back to prison.
The Senate previously rejected a bill that would have abolished the parole board.
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But Brownback's order presses the issue. It will automatically become law on July 1 unless the House or Senate passes a resolution to stop it.
Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said abolishing the parole board would be "a significant change" in the state justice system and pressed Roberts on the possibility of conflict of interest.
Owens likened it to when he served as general counsel for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, and panels initially deciding cases and ruling on appeals had overlapping membership and answered to the same management.
"Is this going to be perceived as just being an incestuous kind of thing in the department?" he said.
Owens also questioned Roberts directly on what he — a cabinet secretary serving at the pleasure of the governor — would do if the governor's chief of staff called and told him to "cut some people loose" to clear prison bed space.
"The first thing I would do is have a discussion with the chief of staff," Roberts replied.
He said he didn't think that would happen. He said his overriding priority is public safety. He vowed to keep parole decisions separate from considerations over the department's budgeting and beds.
Under Brownback's order, the parole board will be replaced with a prisoner review board made up of staff members from the Department of Corrections. Roberts said he is in the process of selecting that group from upper echelons of department management.
"Any process is only as good as the people you have in place," Roberts said.
He also said the board would generally have a free hand.
"I would not see myself being involved in these (parole) decisions on a routine basis," he said.
Brownback's budget estimates the switch would save slightly less than $500,000 a year, mainly the salary and benefits for the three current parole board members.
Sen. Duane Umbarger, R-Thayer, exacted a pledge from Roberts that the Corrections Department would take on the parole board's work without seeking more money.
"Is your staff going to have time to do all this?" he asked.
"Yes sir, we will," Roberts replied.
He said he plans to streamline the process by "automating some functions" and increasing use of video conferencing and electronic records.
"I've spent my whole life in the field of corrections," said Roberts, who was promoted to secretary after serving as warden of the El Dorado Correctional Facility. "Doing more with less is something we've done for many years."
After the hearing, parole board member Tom Sawyer, a former state representative from Wichita, said he doubts shifting the work to the Corrections Department would actually save any money.
"Do they just have that much staff lying around with that kind of free time?" he said.
According to Roberts, there are about 1,150 inmates in custody whose sentences allow for possibility of parole.
Sawyer said there are about an additional 10,000 ex-convicts who have been paroled but could be brought in on alleged violations.
Because of time limitations, Friday's hearing ended before opponents of Brownback's order got a chance to testify.
Owens said he will schedule an additional session for that.