Even with some funds restored, Kansas corrections officials worry about crime going up

The financial outlook for the Kansas Department of Corrections got better after Gov. Sam Brownback restored almost $3 million in budget cuts Saturday.

But the department still is losing millions, and state officials still worry that crime rates could go up as the dollars go down.

Less money for programs to teach people how to make better decisions may increase recidivism.

Cuts to juvenile delinquency prevention programs could create new criminals.

Fewer parole officers will mean less intense supervision for people who have proven they need it.

“If they’re not supervised, they’re going to keep repeating their actions, and there’s potential for crime rates to go up,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said last week.

“This isn’t just a Sedgwick County problem. It’s a state problem.”

Brownback agreed.

On Saturday, he restored $2.7 million to the department for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1, and vetoed the budget for fiscal year 2015, which included nearly $10 million in cuts to the department.

“I have grave concerns about the impact of this budget on public safety,” Brownback said in his veto message, adding that his actions “will allow the Department of Corrections to use these resources to soften the impact of their reduced funding and protect critical components of our corrections system.”

The corrections department still faces cuts of between $4.7 million and $5.7 million for 2014, Jeremy Barclay, special assistant to Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, said Saturday.

Trickle-down effect

How the department will handle the cuts is yet to be determined, Barclay said last week.

But a memo the department issued in May, during legislative discussions when cuts were proposed to be $5.6 million, said it would cut:

• $2 million for community corrections programming needed to implement the Justice Reinvestment Act, a plan to reduce the number of prisoners.

• $500,000 in the parole budget, resulting in the layoffs of 10 parole officers. Parole officers each handle an average of 60 cases.

• $1.2 million to community corrections grants that fund programs for high-risk probationers. Those cuts likely will affect Sedgwick County, including its adult residential facility.

• $350,000 for juvenile delinquency prevention.

• $350,000 to juvenile community corrections programs.

• $600,000 in open corrections officer positions.

The county doesn’t yet know how the department’s budget cut will trickle down to the local level. County Manager William Buchanan noted last week that an additional $750,000 the Legislature had allotted for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch likely would be overshadowed by the cuts.

Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, said he believes the money will be restored when the Legislature convenes in January.

“I do share those concerns but believe they can be and will be and are being remedied,” he said. “I worked very hard to get assurance from the speaker of the House, Senate leadership and the governor that things would be done as soon as possible to make sure that funding for public safety budgets would be fully restored. The governor has publicly and repeatedly said he will work for a supplemental appropriation in January, and the speaker of the House gave written confirmation that he would support supplemental funding to fund corrections.”

King made those remarks before Brownback’s vetoes Saturday. In his veto message, Brownback said that he looked “forward to working with the 2014 Legislature in finding the department sufficient resources to ensure public safety is not imperiled.”

Easter is concerned not only as a law enforcement officer who spent years on the streets with the Wichita Police Department but also as a sheriff who runs a jail.

Re-offenders will create new crime victims, and the criminals will land, even if only for a while, at the Sedgwick County Jail, which is already dealing with overcrowding.

Long-term costs

The budget for the corrections department started with more promise this past spring.

Brownback had recommended $2 million in additional funding in fiscal year 2014 and $3 million in fiscal year 2015 for programs aimed to keep people from coming back to prison.

The department estimated there would be 250 to 300 fewer people coming to prison next fiscal year and 750 to 800 fewer inmates in fiscal year 2015.

“As part of the selling point, we told the governor we could avoid $50 million over the next five years” by reducing the number of prisoners through programs and policies aimed to teach criminals that the state “is not bluffing” about the penalties for committing crime, Barclay said. The plan called for “swift and certain” sanctions for violating parole.

When people violate parole, Barclay said, parole officers write them up, and then they wait for three weeks to see a judge.

“That’s like telling your child when they’ve done something wrong: ‘In three weeks, I’m going to put you in your room for an hour,’ ” Barclay said.

New policies would be more of a deterrent, putting parole violators back in prison for 120 or 180 days “so that they get the message,” Barclay said.

Now the department likely will look to those new programs and educational opportunities for prisoners as a place to cut.

“It’s easier to cut money you never had before,” Barclay said.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who serves on the corrections and juvenile justice committee, said the state may save money in the short term but pay more in the long run.

“I’m really concerned about recidivism because of lack of programming and education,” she said. “Even though you’re cutting right now, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have an increase of people re-offending. I think it’s going to cause more problems than we anticipate.”

Contributing: Brad Cooper of the Kansas City Star.