Costs of prison spur Kansas to take new look at probation system

The prison doors keep revolving and the taxpayers of Kansas keep paying.

A growing prison population fueled by people on probation and parole being returned to incarceration is forecast to outstrip the number of available beds within a few years.

If left unchecked, officials say, the trend will prompt a pair of equally unpalatable options: Build new prisons at enormous cost or allow the courts to release inmates early to avoid overcrowding.

Rather than wait, state officials hope a proposed law can reverse that trend and save millions of dollars while also reducing crime.

It focuses on strategies to better supervise and assist probationers and parolees in their communities to keep them out of trouble and out of prison.

“Public safety is at the core of this initiative,” said Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts.

Some law enforcement officials, however, think parts of the bill afford probation violators too many chances at the expense of public safety.

“How many cracks at probation do you get?” asked Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

Though the number of prison admissions for new crimes has been going down, the number of admissions for probation and parole violations has increased 25 percent since 2009, Roberts said.

Parolees are people who were sentenced to prison and then released for a period of supervision. Some people are initially granted probation at sentencing, but if they violate conditions of that probation, they have an underlying prison sentence that must be served.

More than a third of last year’s admissions were probation violators, according to Roberts. And they were sent to prison not for new crimes, but for violations like failing a drug test, missing meetings with probation officers or not following through on treatment or counseling.

Once returned, their average stint behind bars is 11 months. At more than $24,000 per inmate per year, those incaraceration costs add up.

In Johnson County alone last year, prosecutors handled 241 felony probation revocation cases. Of those, 216 offenders were then sent to prison to serve all or part of their original sentence.

The proposed law would provide judges and probation officers with more options to punish such technical violations short of long-term imprisonment.

“Right now we have a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Kansas state Rep. John Rubin, a bill proponent and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “We send them right back to the slammer.”

If passed, the new law would give judges the option of imposing consecutive or concurrent sentences for some people who commit new felony crimes while on probation or parole.

The law would implement a series of “graduated sanctions” that may start with a weekend in the county jail and increase in severity with additional violations that could land repeat violators back in prison. The "graduated sanctions" portion of the bill would not apply to those charged with committing new crimes while on probation or parole.

“We can get their attention for a shorter period of time,” Roberts said. “If they need to be locked up because they are a threat to public safety, then they should be locked up.”

Law enforcement officials are concerned that the proposal has too many graduated steps before a repeat violator faces serious prison time, Howe said.

Another provision that would allow judges to reduce the sentence of an offender sent to prison for a violation also is troubling, Howe said.

“This rewards bad behavior, and sends a confusing message to the probationer,” Howe said.

A significant percentage of people on probation and parole struggle with mental health or substance abuse problems, and they tend to be those who historically pose the greatest risk of being returned to prison both for technical violations and committing new crimes.

Roberts said part of the new strategy will be investing in community-based programs to better address those behavioral issues. Several million dollars for those efforts is included in upcoming budgets proposed by the governor.

“If we focus resources on high-risk offenders, we can help to reduce crime and the number of crime victims,” he said.

The law also would address a shortcoming in the current system.

Each year, about 900 inmates are released from prison without any kind of post-release supervision, and they are more likely to commit new crimes than those with supervision. The new law will require supervision for everyone being released.

“With no supervision there is no effective opportunity for successful transition,” Roberts said.

Such reforms in how states deal with people on probation and parole are being adopted in a number of other states.

Missouri passed similar legislation last year. It lets probation officers impose “swift and sure” sanctions for violations as an alternative to prison for low-level, non-violent felony offenders.

Former state Rep. Gary Fuhr, who helped sponsor the Missouri bill, said the law that took effect in August was based on evidence gleaned from national research.

“It will take a little time to determine the financial impact and rewards,” Fuhr said.

The Kansas bill has been passed by the House and is being considered by the Senate. It also is rooted in research and an analysis of projections from the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

State officials worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to craft the legislation.

Roberts said that the approach is estimated to save $53 million over five years.

“It can reduce the need for 840 beds in a very safe manner,” he said.

Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, emphasized that the bill does not affect probationers who commit new crimes, those who abscond while on probation or parole or those currently serving a prison sentence.

Though he believes overall the proposal can reduce recidivism, Howe said it shouldn’t sacrifice public safety to achieve that goal.

“Bed space does not trump public safety,” he said.