TOPEKA – Penalties for marijuana possession could be softened in Kansas as legislators seek to lower prison populations and reduce costs.
State officials testified Wednesday in favor of a bill that would drop first- and second-time marijuana possession offenses below the felony level. The hearing before the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee comes on the heels of discussions last week in a Senate committee on a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use.
While a second marijuana conviction can currently land a person in jail for 10 to 42 months, the legislation would remove the risk of prison time for offenders with no prior convictions until their third offense, said Scott Schultz, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, which proposed the bill.
Republican Rep. Tom Moxley of Council Grove said after the hearing that it was time for the state to re-examine the way it punishes marijuana offenses.
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“The issue of proportionality has been brought up by a number of legislators because we incarcerate an extraordinary number of people for pretty light crimes, nonviolent crimes, particularly in the drug arena,” Moxley said.
No opponents of the bill appeared to testify during the hearing, and committee members acknowledged that the state’s budget woes made the cost-saving potential of the bill more attractive.
Schultz said it would result in about 46 fewer prisoners per year, saving the state about $800,000 annually. Jennifer Roth, a public defender, testified that the move would save the state even more in the courtroom and probation administration expenses.
“We recognize a need for frugality in this state. We want bang for the buck, and right now we’re just locking people up at great cost, and we need to think that through,” Moxley said. “If ever there was a time, this is the time.”
Kansas’ prison population is growing and is expected to exceed capacity by the end of 2015. The Department of Corrections estimates that its prisons will be overcrowded by 7 percent by 2024.