Guest Commentary

Root causes of prison overcrowding need to be addressed

With our prisons bulging, Gov. Laura Kelly may be forced to send some Kansas inmates to a CoreCivic prison in Arizona to relieve overcrowding. That announcement was troubling, but there is a bigger problem at hand: Kansas’ refusal to enact criminal justice reform.

Our state needs to immediately enact preventative, evidence-based solutions to ensure that fewer Kansans enter our overburdened system in the first place.

Had the state Legislature and governor long ago implemented suggested Smart Justice reforms – such as de-felonizing drug crimes and standardizing diversion measures – perhaps Gov. Kelly wouldn’t now be considering sending inmates to a for-profit prison.

The Kansans for Smart Justice Campaign aims to reduce mass incarceration, boost prosecutorial accountability, reform civil asset forfeiture policies, reduce recidivism, de-felonize drug crimes and eliminate racial disparities in our justice system. By cutting prison populations in half, the state of Kansas could save nearly $300 million.

The Legislature squandered an opportunity last session to forge a new path forward. With rare, bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform and the Department of Corrections pleading for relief, legislators tabled the issue.

What is most disheartening is that there are proven, effective solutions to this crisis, but those with the power to make this change are refusing to do so. They are preoccupied with optics and with debating overcrowded prisons rather than addressing the larger problem of over incarceration. They are paying attention only to the most visible symptom, rather than addressing the root causes.

Americans for Prosperity and the ACLU supported broad criminal justice reforms, and there is significant bipartisan support for these efforts. However, entrenched and intractable leadership meant that few good bills moved this past legislative session.

Still, we’re hopeful about the prospects for reform.

In December, for example, Gov. Kelly acknowledged that many non-violent offenders do not belong in prison and that the state’s sentencing practices needed urgent reform.

Kansas incarcerates nonviolent offenders at higher rates than other offenders. Drug offenses account for nearly one-third of prison admissions. Roughly 70 percent of people imprisoned in 2015 did not commit a violent crime. One in three people in prison are incarcerated because of a supervision violation, often related to technicalities. Racial incarceration disparities in Kansas are among the nation’s worst.

Transferring some inmates to Arizona may temporarily relieve overcrowding, but we need to turn off the prosecution spigot immediately or prisons will be full again in a matter of months.

We absolutely have to start thinking about upstream solutions instead of reactive, downstream triage. If a river is being polluted, shouldn’t we stop the pollution at its source while finding ways to clean up the pollution?

We’re well past the time for debate. We’re in a crisis.

Legislators seem to consider prison overcrowding as the core issue, but what I want legislators and the governor to consider is simple: why are we needlessly locking up so many people in the first place?

And why has our state government been so slow to address this?

Kiana Knolland is the Smart Justice field organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas
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