It’s gotta be nice, to be appointed to a state commission to study Kansas criminal justice reform. Everyone wants lawbreakers in prison, that’s the simple part. It’s making sure that they don’t wind up there again after victimizing the rest of us again that is the less-than-sexy part of the issue.
The Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission which organized last week is packed with Kansans who have deep background on just how the correctional system works and how to make it work better.
But the real key to that organizational meeting in which Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett was elected to lead the troop is that the commission wants to identify the buy-in to their task from legislative leaders and the Gov. Laura Kelly administration.
It’s easy to hand a commission a nice name, pay the members mileage, have staff hovering around it and claim that the Legislature is “deeply involved” in deterring crime, approving reasonable sentences for criminals and giving them the support and training, mental health care, drug use counseling to succeed after release…and even having some of those who have been convicted of crimes helping others to learn job skills so they don’t break the law.
All of that noble work—which, by the way protects the rest of us and protects the future of those prisoners—is going to cost money that the state is going to have to come up with.
Nope, it’s not as politically attractive as a new off-ramp or bridge, or maybe a tax cut for corporations with foreign revenues or upper-wage income tax filers, but it’s part of the duty of state government. Just not much of a bullet point on those palm cards that lawmakers are going to be handing out next year as they seek re-election.
The goal of the commission, to tell the Legislature just how the state can more effectively deal with prisoners, is important to all of us. Nope, don’t see a bullet point saying, “if your car wasn’t stolen, you can thank me,” or “helped prevent your high school kid from buying marijuana.”
There are important issues that the commission is looking at. Like specialized drug courts where prosecutors and judges have experience with drug crimes and know what works to reduce the chance of a criminal going back into the drug business. There is diversion from jail sentences which requires more active supervision of offenders, which means more probation officers, more social services for them.
Or…the complicated process of assisting those who are being released from custody with just a few bucks and the clothes they wore when they went to prison. That re-entry into the general population is complicated, it requires counseling, it requires access to a job, social retraining and other skills. Not high-profile stuff, but important if we don’t want prisoners essentially “vacationing” among us until they commit another crime and are returned to prison.
Nothing cheap here, but then again there’s nothing cheap about just locking people up, building more prisons, or, at least this year, shipping prisoners off to a privately owned Arizona prison because we don’t have enough room for them and enough staffing to keep them safely in Kansas.
Last session’s bill that creates the Criminal Justice Reform Commission passed the Senate 39-0, the House 123-0, and was signed by the governor May 16.
Not surprisingly, that was the easy part, creating a panel to examine the correctional system in Kansas. The hard part? Diverting money from more politically popular programs to dealing with corrections.