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Pat Nolan: Mentoring helps keep parolees 'out for life'

It's no secret that every state government is facing difficult budget decisions, and Kansas is no exception. One part of the budget that is expanding faster than nearly all others is the cost of prisons.

It costs Kansas $341 million each year to house about 8,700 inmates, with another 7,000 in county jails, draining resources that could be devoted to education, hospitals and highways.

About 95 percent of these inmates will be released when they complete their sentences. What kind of neighbors will they be? That depends on how well they have been prepared for life after prison.

So far, it hasn't been very good. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States found that 43 percent of Kansas' released inmates were back in prison within three years. This is a financial and public safety crisis. We aim to change that.

If Kansas can stop this revolving door of crime, the prison population will begin dropping, and the corrections budget along with it.

Gov. Sam Brownback is committed to reducing recidivism. I worked closely with him when he was in the U.S. Senate. He was an ardent advocate for reforms aimed at making sure that most offenders' first term in prison would be their last.

As governor, he has made a priority of focusing the prison system on this goal: Reduce recidivism. That means safer neighborhoods and fewer victims. It also means less cost to the state budget.

Under Brownback's leadership, the state has partnered with Prison Fellowship — the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families — to sponsor Out4Life, a statewide effort that will bring together more than 250 businesses, nonprofit organizations, churches and other community groups. The goal: to form local coalitions to help returning offenders make a successful transition back to the community.

Monday through Wednesday of this week, we are bringing together in Wichita these varied groups to establish local coalitions — particularly in key areas such as Kansas City, Wichita and Garden City where so many Kansas ex-offenders return — to coordinate local programs to help returning offenders and their families.

Participants are developing a plan to create communities of care that will assist inmates in developing life plans for after they leave prison. The coalitions will match them with the assistance they need on the day of their release, such as housing and transportation. The coalitions also will provide ongoing help such as connecting them with medical care, drug treatment and local churches, if desired.

A top priority for the coalitions will be to match inmates with mentors who will hold the offenders accountable while also providing practical advice. Many of the offenders have never had an adult they can trust and look up to.

Mentors provide something that no government program can: love. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "To change someone, you must first love them. And they must know that you love them." The love that mentors provide is essential in helping an ex-prisoner choose to stay on the straight and narrow.

Will all offenders succeed after they are released? That is unlikely. But we can make a difference in the lives of those who want to change. And that will make communities safer and better.

Prison Fellowship is excited to partner with Brownback and the state of Kansas in this life-changing work. When offenders walk through the prison gates, we want to make sure they are "out for life."