Attorney General Derek Schmidt expressed optimism Monday the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly were on the cusp of working in harmony on legislation expanding mental health and substance abuse services for offenders.
"It sure looks to me like, under the banner of criminal justice reform, the stars are aligning for really doing something meaningful in the Kansas criminal justice system," he said. "Across the philosophical spectrum, the partisan spectrum, everybody is saying we've got to do something."
He said there was diversity of opinion about justification for reform and what shape change ought to take, but the attorney general said it was imperative the state make overdue investment in treatments capable of altering offenders' behavior.
Lack of accessible care for drug and alcohol addictions, as well as chronic mental illness, serves to inflame unlawful conduct and unnecessarily jeopardize public safety, he said. Past efforts at transforming the system were stalled by legislators who balked at sticker shock of delivering special care for addicts and the mentally ill, he said.
Renewal of interest in criminal justice reform reflected the state's rising crime statistics, ongoing threats posed by recidivists, state prison crowding and riots, and pressure on county jails to deal with people struggling with addiction and illness.
Earlier this year, Kelly ordered the temporary transfer of up to 600 inmates to a private facility in Arizona. The governor has expressed interest in reviewing sentencing guidelines, redirecting prison resources into treatment and better preparing inmates for release with workplace skills. She has said many people incarcerated in Kansas don't belong behind bars.
A proposed bill from the American Civil Liberties Union would reform the state's handling of probation violations. The organization said at least 40% of inmates entering the state's prisons were there on technical infractions of their probation.
In advance of the 2020 legislative session in January, the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission recommended construction of a $20 million substance abuse treatment facility and allocation of $3.5 million to renovate prison space to serve 250 inmates with substance abuse problems.
In addition, the commission urged expenditure of $9 million to renovate a prison facility for use as a 250-bed geriatric care facility.
The commission praised a proposal drafted two years ago by a separate group calling for expansion of the state's mental hospitals at Osawatomie and Larned at a cost of $86 million.
"The right measure of criminal justice reform ... is: Does it produce fewer victims of crime over time," Schmidt said in an interview at his Topeka office.
Schmidt, who recently declined to seek GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate, said Kansas politicians had a duty to strike a balance between holding offenders accountable by removing them from society and giving people tools necessary to have a fighting chance of not offending again. Emptying prison space and calling it reform won't boost public safety, he said.
The Legislature and governor need to pay attention to delivering mental health and addiction treatment services in urban centers, such as Johnson and Shawnee counties, and sparsely populated regions that include Rawlins and Thomas counties, he said.
In mid-December, the Kansas Department of Corrections reported all minimum-security offenders housed at Lansing Correctional Facility’s east unit had been moved to a new 512-bed new living unit a Lansing. New maximum- and medium-security buildings are scheduled for completion in early 2020, the department said.
"Our staff strive every day to protect our communities and to serve our offenders in a way that will improve their lives upon re-entry," said Jeff Zmuda, secretary of the Department of Corrections.