Politics & Government

Kansas official seeks to save funds to treat drug offenders

TOPEKA — With potential budget problems looming in Kansas, a state official urged legislators Tuesday to protect funding for substance-abuse treatment that keeps hundreds of drug offenders out of prison.

Scott Schultz, the Kansas Sentencing Commission’s executive director, said treatment has proven to be a cost-effective way over the past decade of dealing with offenders convicted of drug possession for the first or second time. He also said the program could be expanded to include offenders who sell small amounts of illegal drugs or those who steal to support drug habits.

Schultz told the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight that reducing spending on treatment could put dozens of additional drug offenders in prison, where housing them would prove more expensive. The committee is reviewing ideas for dealing with the state’s full prisons and rising inmate population, including a $27 million expansion of the state’s maximum-security prison outside El Dorado.

The committee’s meeting came days before state officials and university economists were to meet to revise projections for state revenues through June 2017. The new fiscal forecast due Friday is expected to be more pessimistic than the current one and could leave the state with a projected budget deficit.

Schultz acknowledged that he’s worried about maintaining the nearly $6.6 million a year dedicated to treating first- and second-time drug offenders and diverting them from prison. The commission reviews sentencing policies and monitors the state’s prison population.

“I think we all know that there’s a storm brewing on the horizon,” Schultz told reporters during a break in the committee’s meeting.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget after the Republican-dominated Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. The state raised sales and cigarette taxes in July, and a soft national economy and low oil and natural gas prices have depressed state revenues in recent months.

Legislators revised drug sentencing laws in 2003 to divert non-violent offenders to treatment, in part to control the growth in the state’s prison population. Schultz said a December 2014 study by the University of Cincinnati showed that treatment dramatically reduces the risk of offenders having another conviction.

And, he told the committee, the treatment has cost on average $4,300 per offender per year – compared with up to $25,000 for housing an offender in prison.

Funding for the treatment already has become tighter, peaking at $8.6 million during the state’s 2007 fiscal year, before the start of the Great Recession. Schultz said the state has controlled its costs partly by shortening in-patient treatment stays.

“We have a program that is working,” Schultz told the committee.