Kevin Gray
KU Statehouse Wire Service
After running projections for Kansas’ prisons, sentencing commission executive director Scott Schultz realized drug offenders were going to overwhelm the system within five years.
“What we’re seeing is drug offenders are a major percentage, as far as increase, of who those individuals are going to be,” Schultz said after the House’s Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee meetingJan. 30. “The commission is being proactive and trying to address what we can do for those individuals.”
In 2017, the Senate passed a bill that created a treatment program for drug offenders. The program lasts 18 months and acts as a diversion from prison. Offenders are eligible for the program after conviction, and can only complete the program twice. Their third offense becomes a presumptive prison sentence.
House Bill 2087 would allow those charged with felony drug possession to enter the diversion treatment program before trial. This would allow offenders to take and complete the program up to five times before a presumptive prison sentence.
Schultz said the bill would help alleviate the space problem facing the state prison system. Of the 9,663 inmates in 2016, 1,370 were serving drug sentences, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. If the program had been available during their sentencing, Schultz said about 10 percent, or 137 inmates, would not have entered prison. This would resolve much of the overcrowding.
He also said the bill would cut down on court costs. If 137 offenders in 2016 had successfully completed the pre-trial program, then the state would have saved court costs from 137 trials. Additionally, increasing the number of programs decreases the likelihood of relapse and additional trials.
Although cost savings are difficult to estimate, council chairman Rep. J. Russell Jennings (R-Garden City) said the bill would certainly save Kansas money.
“When you intervene with an offender with a drug addiction with a program that effectively addresses that addiction, you are likely reducing long-term costs to the state,” Jennings said. “You avoid the costs of prosecution and defense. You avoid additional costs associated with incarceration.”
But before Kansas would see the savings, House Bill 2087 would need initial funding. Each treatment costs $3,598, according to Schultz. The Kansas Sentencing Commission estimated 40 offenders would be eligible for treatment in 2019, meaning approximately $150,000 for 2019. The commission estimated an additional $150,000 for 2020, totaling $300,000.
Schultz said the Kansas Sentencing Commission, which funds the treatments, is requesting the money from the state. This could hinder the bill, according to Rep. John Whitmer (R-Cheney).
“In reviewing (the bill), Community Corrections was the only opposition, and it was because of cost,” Whitmer said.
However, according to the Jennings and Rep. Blaine Finch (R-Ottawa), the benefits to local communities and the state could outweigh the initial cost.
“You’d likely reduce the potential for additional victimization from other crimes,” Jennings said. “You make them more productive and more akin to a taxpayer who is actually employed.”
No opponents of House Bill 2087 were present, but Community Corrections submitted a written testimonial in opposition.
The Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee will continue to discuss the bill.
“(The citizens of Kansas) want these people to beat their addiction and go on to be productive members of society,” Finch said.
Kevin Gray is a University of Kansas senior from Denver majoring in journalism and linguistics.