DeAnn Smith
More than nine out of 10 Kansas registered voters supports changes to the criminal justice system in Kansas, and more than two-thirds of voters believe the number of prisoners in Kansas needs to be reduced, according to the results of a poll commissioned for the ACLU of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed.
While most Kansans feel safe in their own neighborhoods, four out of five Kansans say the criminal justice system in Kansas is facing challenges that need to be addressed. More than a third of voters say the system needs a significant revamping due to problems and challenges. Voters are skeptical of claims that criminal justice reform would undermine public safety in Kansas.
The Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hayes State University conducted the poll last month of both landline and mobile phone users. The poll surveyed 415 registered voters and has a margin of error of 4.8 percent. The poll’s racial, gender, ethnic and political makeup is representative of Kansas.
“We hope that these findings spur the next Kansas Legislature into action,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. “In this poll, Kansans said it loud and clear: they want reform of our criminal justice system.  Kansans don’t just want reform in the abstract.  They want reforms that will make our communities safer and stronger, while simultaneously reducing the prison population.  There are some reforms that Kansas can adopt that would achieve both of those goals, including making certain drug possession offenses misdemeanors rather than felonies or greater use of diversion by local prosecutors.  Far from being controversial or unpopular, this poll finds that those are precisely the sort of common-sense reforms strongly favored by Kansans.”
The poll found widespread public approval for very specific proposals like making certain drug offenses misdemeanors rather than felonies, for prosecutors to use diversion more widely, and for the reform of our badly broken civil asset forfeiture laws.  These proposals had broad support, regardless of gender, age, education, party affiliation, and ideological orientation.
Key findings from the poll include:
Fully ninety-three percent of Kansans believe changes are needed to the criminal justice system. Of that, 50 percent say it is very important that changes be made. Eighty percent said they strongly support smart justice policies with another 16 percent expressing some support.
When asked an open-ended question about why it is important to reduce the number of prisoners, 43 percent said people are housed in prisons that don’t belong there. A third of voters believe the costs are too high. More than a fifth of voters believe sentences are too long and harsh. Three out of five Kansans say reducing the prison population would free up taxpayer money for other purposes.
Three out of four Kansans say defelonizing certain non-violent drug convictions would save tax dollars that could be used for other purposes, including community safety programs. Eighty percent believe the state is wasting money by imprisoning people on simple, non-violent drug possession convictions. There is significant support for providing community-based treatment programs for drug addicts who haven’t committed violent crimes.
The poll found that more than 80 percent of Kansans support requiring law enforcement officials to get a conviction before they can seize someone’s property.  That would be a major change from current law, which unconscionably permits law enforcement to seize someone’s property based purely on suspicion.  A recent state audit also raised significant questions about implementation of the current system, especially limited accountability and transparency.
“At a time when so many issues seem to divide Kansas voters so deeply, criminal justice reform is one that unites them,” said Kubic. “People are in agreement that Kansas must enact significant and dramatic smart justice measures. It is up to lawmakers—from across the political, partisan, and ideological spectrum—to come together and respond to this desire for reform.”
Recognizing the need and widespread demand for criminal justice reform, the ACLU of Kansas has joined with other organizations earlier this year to form Kansans for Smart Justice, a statewide coalition advocating for reform.  This unprecedentedly broad coalition of civil rights, community improvement, social service and faith-based organizations released a Smart Justice Agenda made up of four modest, common-sense reforms that will make our state safer and stronger, while reducing the number of people who are incarcerated.
Kansans for Smart Justice is also working to ensure that criminal justice issues are given consideration by candidates in this year’s state elections.  The coalition distributed a questionnaire to every candidate for state legislature.  Many candidates responded, and their responses are posted in their entirety at www.smartjusticekansas.org.  The responses to the questionnaire identified a broad consensus on criminal justice issues.
In addition, Kansans for Smart Justice is hosting a series of candidate forums on criminal justice issues in five counties. These forums will give voters an opportunity to hear directly from candidates on these important issues, and to have vital information when casting their ballots on Nov.  Well-respected journalists and community leaders will moderate the forums, which begin this Thursday in Johnson County and conclude Oct. 13 in Wichita.  More than forty candidates have already confirmed their participation in this series of forums.
For more information about the policy proposals that earned widespread public support and the upcoming candidate forums, visit www.smartjusticekansas.org.
Two upcoming forums:
Wyandotte County State Legislative Candidate Forum, Saturday, Oct. 1 at 10 a.m. at the Bethel Neighborhood Center (14 S. 7th Street – Kansas City, KS)
Douglas County State Legislative Candidate Forum, Thursday, Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence (1263 N. 1100 Road – Lawrence, KS)
The events are sponsored by: Kansans for Smart Justice; ACLU of Kansas; Kansas Appleseed; Kansas Black Leadership Council and Lawrence NAACP

DeAnn Smith is the director of communications and outreach, aclukansas.org