Guest Commentary

The myriad factors affecting crime do not lend themselves to easy fixes

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Criminal justice reform is not simple. The myriad factors affecting crime — employment, homelessness, mental-health, addiction and socio economic — do not lend themselves to easy fixes. With nothing constructive to offer, the ACLU seems content to trot out their tired, simplistic trope that more diversion is the answer.

Diversion is probation without a conviction. But Kansas law does not allow state probation officers to oversee diverted individuals. So, prosecutor’s offices are left to supervise diversion. The DA’s Office is a law firm. We have lawyers and support staff, not probation officers, counselors and mental health professionals.

This year, a bill I proposed (HB 2292) to allow probation officers to supervise diversions, was referred to the new Criminal Justice Reform Commission. Given their fixation with diversion, it was odd that I didn’t see the ACLU at my testimony.

Prosecutors know the reality — defendants charged with non-violent property or drug crimes (drug cases constitute 15% of the prison population) only go to prison after multiple violations of supervision. The cycle is repeated time and again.

After all the violations, 59.1% of the Kansas prisoners in fiscal year 2018 were there for violations and/or crimes committed while already on supervision. Two of the top four reasons for violations were drug-related.

In addition to drugs, 39% of Kansas inmates have serious mental illness — 11% of which were “severely and persistently mentally ill.”

People with mental illnesses and drug addictions do not do well on supervision, but we’ve spent decades reducing the availability of treatment. Kansas went from 1,000 mental health hospital beds in 1990 to 254 in 2017.

This leads to a revolving door at Kansas prisons. In 2018, 68% of people sent to Kansas prisons arrived owing less than four years; 21% arrived owing six months or less.

So we know the problem. Until Kansas takes the steps necessary to provide accessible drug and mental health treatment to citizens statewide, we will lock people up for short stays, to be released and sent back again and again after committing more violations and/or crimes.

In Sedgwick County, several years ago, we cut our diversion application fee in half and allowed felons to apply. Still, only 169 people applied in 2018 out of 3,107 adult felony cases filed. The ACLU’s intentionally misleading assertion that there exists a 9% national diversion rate is simply untrue — a fact that has been pointed out to them many times.

The ACLU tries to compare Sedgwick County to other counties. In 2016, roughly one-third of Kansas counties handled fewer than 20 felony cases; we handled over 3,200. If they divert five bad check cases, they’ve got 25% diversion rates. I don’t have that luxury.

As district attorney of the judicial district with the largest number of violent crimes committed against our hardworking citizens, we will continue to prosecute criminals who commit crime. The ACLU should stick to defending speech. They offer little to this discussion.

Marc Bennett is the Sedgwick County district attorney
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