The governor, some legislative leaders and members of the judicial branch have all expressed a desire to pursue some form of criminal justice reform — all with the best intentions I am sure. Sadly they have only expressed the desire to do little more than study the issue.
Admittedly, criminal justice is complex and there are several moving parts. The cost of implementing ineffective programs can be wasteful and even counterproductive. Reforms have the potential to devastate resources, the economy, the person in need of support and their families if poorly conceived or implemented.
The Kansas Department of Corrections is bursting at the seams. The projections over the past 20 years have come true. Programs in place for re-entry into our state of soon-to-be -released prisoners only have the capacity for about a third of those scheduled for release. Staff pay when adjusting for inflation is less than it was 30 years ago.
After over 30 years practicing law, five legislative sessions as a state senator and now 10 years as a District Court judge, my experiences have shown that there is a great desire to improve Kansas’ criminal justice system. The blockage is the expense.
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Senate Bill 89 updates the existing law that created the Substance Abuse Policy Board. SB 89 adds new duties studying treatment, sentencing, rehabilitation and supervision of substance abuse offenders. The SAPB was originally to look at driving under the influence and the use of therapeutic courts by other states. The board’s make-up needs to be updated to reflect the current configuration of Kansas government. The board issued a report on DUI law, but never went forward with the mandated review and analysis of drug courts. The cost of restarting the SAPB is nominal.
The Kansas House of Representatives has HB 2018. It creates a new commission with a similar task, a broader mandate to review the sentencing guidelines and the use of diversion agreements and specialty facilities in KDOC such as treatment prisons.
Neither bill has been voted out of committee. While in the Senate, I wrote into the law provisions establishing a treatment prison and directing courts when to send offenders, preventing long term incarceration. Sadly, the bonding to finance that innovation was cut in 2009. It would have paid for itself with cost savings. The Kansas Supreme Court has created its own committee to study the same topics.
The intention of these bills is to restart the process and comprehensively review the law in Kansas and other states. If someone else has developed a perfectly round wheel, there is no reason for Kansas to reinvent it. To build our decisions upon the successes of other jurisdictions is far more efficient than implementing programs based solely upon the subjective opinion of one or more individuals.
To effectively deal with this complicated issue, comprehensive assessment and evaluation of other programs needs to be done. Our goals should be to reduce recidivism and victimization, to break the cycle of addiction and to help our fellow citizens get on with their lives in a productive and beneficial manner.
Sadly, like a turtle on its back, there’s lots of movement but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
Phillip B. Journey is a Sedgwick County District Court judge