The criminal justice system in Kansas has reached a breaking point. Our jails are dangerously overcrowded, chronically understaffed, and are draining taxpayers’ pockets.
During my time at the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office and as general counsel for the Kansas Highway Patrol, I saw firsthand how our state’s mass incarceration epidemic devastates our communities. Today, nearly 10,000 Kansans, many with a mental illness or substance abuse condition, sit behind bars at a staggering cost of $229 million a year. Even with disturbances and uprisings at Norton and El Dorado correctional facilities last fall, lawmakers still don’t have an answer.
We need a dramatic shift in the way we approach sentencing in Kansas, and we need it fast.
Thankfully, Kansas already has a powerful tool to drastically cut government spending, lower the prison population, and make Kansas communities safer. That tool is diversion.
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Diversion programs can vary, but are based on the same general principle: When individuals are charged, they can apply to complete alternative sentences, such as performing community service, paying restitution, or seeking treatment.
Diversion is significantly cheaper than incarceration and offers better outcomes. People who might otherwise serve prison sentences are instead able to continue providing for their families and seek treatment for underlying mental or behavioral health conditions that likely contributed to their crime in the first place.
Someone who goes to prison faces a dramatically different fate. While incarcerated, mental or behavioral health issues may worsen. Upon release, the individual has few resources and a criminal background that makes it difficult to find employment. These factors contribute to the cycle of recidivism.
Diversion has a proven track record. In two counties in Nevada, diversion programs with mental health services reduced recidivism by 95 percent. Yet, despite the resounding evidence, most Kansas prosecutors utilize diversion at an abysmally low average of 5 percent, which is half the national average.
Our diversion program is badly broken and lacks transparency. County prosecutors are the sole gatekeepers of the diversion process, and 32 of our 105 counties don’t have a formal application process. This problem could be easily rectified without adding additional burden to prosecutors through a standard statewide application.
Strict eligibility restrictions and exorbitant program fees add further complication. Only 10 counties maintain records of their diversion applications and in some counties, diverting a charge of simple marijuana possession could cost over $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. Standardizing fees and basic record keeping are practical solutions that would ensure all Kansans are served effectively.
Prison is not a cure for mental illness or drug abuse. If prosecutors were to embrace diversion at the national average of 9 percent, our prison population would be reduced by 10 percent statewide, taxpayer spending would drop by $8.9 million every year, and our communities would be safer and stronger.
Although the decision to utilize diversion is ultimately in the hands of county prosecutors, let’s not forget that as elected officials, they must be accountable to the people of this state.
Brian Leininger is a former Assistant District Attorney from Wyandotte County and currently manages a private practice in Johnson County. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a non-profit group of current and former prosecutors, judges, police, and other criminal justice professionals who use their expertise to advance policy solutions that improve public safety.