Eagle editorial: Don’t be cheap on crime

Tough talk on crime is cheap. What’s costly is paying for prisons and deterring recidivism.

As a Friday speech in Wichita by Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts made clear, state leaders will need to do more to help the prison system cope with budget problems, including by expanding and improving intervention and post-release programs cut during the downturn.

Last month Roberts’ well-founded concerns got the attention of his boss, Gov. Sam Brownback, whose line-item vetoes of the 2013 Legislature’s two-year state budget restored $2.7 million to the Department of Corrections for fiscal year 2014 and spared it $10 million in cuts for fiscal 2015.

But the system still took a cut of $4.7 million to $5.7 million for the year that began July 1, and the sobering facts that Roberts mentioned in his address to the Wichita Pachyderm Club call for more attention in Topeka:

• With 6,000 parolees and 9,500 inmates, the prison system is at capacity, and anticipating 2,100 more offenders over the next decade.

• 66 percent of inmates are drug abusers and 38 percent are mentally ill, necessitating treatment and making the Department of Corrections “the largest provider in the state for the mentally ill population,” as Roberts said.

• The average inmate age is 37 or 38 (up from 25 in 1975), and more than 800 inmates are older than 55. An older inmate population means more chronic and acute health problems, and prisoner health care now costs $48 million a year.

• 33.1 percent of newly released inmates end up back in prison within three years, which is a lot but is better than the national rate of 43.3 percent. Roberts credited a mentoring program that is 2,480 volunteers strong.

As for the well-intentioned calls to reserve prison beds for violent criminals and treat drug offenders and mentally ill inmates in community-based settings: “Some of those drug offenders, if you look at their record, you wouldn’t want them released,” Roberts said. “Some of our mentally ill offenders have committed some tough crimes.”

In the message last month accompanying his veto of the Department of Corrections’ entire 2015 budget, Brownback said he looked “forward to working with the 2014 Legislature in finding the department sufficient resources to ensure public safety is not imperiled.”

As he does, Kansans will need to remind lawmakers that being tough on crime means more than passing bills.

It also means paying the bills for prisons, parole officers, juvenile delinquency prevention and more.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman