With Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announcing plans to send 600 Kansas prisoners to a private Arizona prison, groups calling for prison reform offer suggestions for better alternatives.
No doubt, Kansas prisons are overcrowded. With a prison capacity of just under 10,000, the state’s prisons are already 100 inmates overcapacity and growing. A $360 million overhaul of the Lansing Correctional Facility approved in 2018 is turning that prison into a state-of-the-art facility, but it's only projected to increase the prison’s bed capacity by 27.
Add in a shortage of prison guards so extreme that it led to the implementation of an emergency declaration at the Eldorado Correctional Facility, and it’s easy to recognize that there is the potential for safety and security issues within the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Moving prisoners to Arizona may offer a short-term fix, but what Kansas needs is a long-term solution. That’s where sentencing reform comes in, says groups like the Kansas Coalition for Sentencing and Prison Reform. Their concept – reduce the number of people in Kansas prisons.
The overwhelming majority (70%) of people sent to prison in Kansas in 2015 were imprisoned for an offense that did not include violence. Addressing the population of Kansas or other prison systems can only happen in two ways: reducing admissions and reducing time served.
In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas suggested a plan to reduce Kansas prison numbers by 50% by 2025.
To reduce admissions, they suggest increasing alternatives to incarceration by increasing diversion programs that give adults charged with crimes the opportunity to complete an alternative to incarceration, like treatment or community service. Kansas prosecutors use diversion at a rate of 5%, half the national average.
Many reasons have been cited for the low usage of diversion – including lack of resources, little knowledge of diversion programs, enormous fines and fees, and prosecutors deciding not to use it.
Fundamental Drug Policy Change
Any meaningful effort to reduce incarceration will need to include a fundamental shift in the state’s drug policy and laws. In 2015, the most common offense was drug possession (17%), followed by burglary (12%), drug trafficking (11%), and assault (10%).
To significantly impact Kansas prison overcrowding, the Kansas Sentencing Commission and ultimately the Kansas Legislature must look at a long-term solution that reforms the Kansas sentencing rule that requires mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.
The ACLU plan to reduce the Kansas Prison Population by 50% suggests instituting alternatives that end all admissions for drug possession, and reducing the average time served for drug distribution by 60%
Reduce Time Served
Reducing time served, even by just a few months, can lead to thousands fewer people in Kansas’ prisons. As of 2015, the average length of imprisonment in Kansas was 4.7 years. In 2017, nearly 1 in 3 people (30%) had been in prison for more than five years.
Those numbers can be decreased by designating low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Removing the mandatory minimums or expanding the suggested ranges can increase judicial discretion and prevent people from receiving excessive prison time.
Increase Good Time Credits
Kansas currently has two systems for earning good time, with one offering much more time than the other. Increasing the availability of good time credits can help reduce time served and further decrease prison overcrowding.
Reduce Racial Disparity
Yes, this does have something to do with sentencing reform. Just a few examples:
Ending sentencing enhancements based on location (drug-free school zones)
Fighting discriminatory gang sentencing enhancements that disproportionately target people of color
Investing in diversion/alternatives to detention in communities of color.