Kansas prison system at capacity, and more growth is expected

The Kansas prison system has reached its capacity, and the state is projected to add 2,100 more offenders to the system in the next decade, the state’s top corrections official said Friday.

If the state wants to avoid spending millions of dollars on more prison bed space, said Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, it has to continue to look at innovative programs and policies that can cut recidivism rates.

As an example, he cited a program that matches inmates with volunteer mentors that has been in operation for two years. He also mentioned a new policy that in future years will require post-release supervision for inmates who have maxed out their sentences. Such inmates, when released today, go unsupervised.

“It’s an ever-evolving, ever-changing business,” he said.

Roberts, who was the featured speaker Friday at a Wichita Republican club, said the Department of Corrections supervises 6,000 parolees and 9,500 inmates, 80 of whom are living in temporary beds.

Roberts said about 66 percent of inmates are drug abusers and 38 percent are mentally ill.

“Substance abuse and mental illness – those are the two big drivers,” he said. “We’re the largest provider in the state for the mentally ill population.”

He said it was important for inmates to have access to drug programs and mental health treatment.

“There’s a cost associated with it, but there’s a cost of doing nothing, too,” he said. “You can’t just keep ’em in prison and think that will do the trick.”

Roberts said 33.1 percent of Kansas’ newly released inmates are returned to prison within three years. He said that’s well below the national recidivism rate of 43.3 percent.

He said Kansas’ success is partly the result of a mentoring program that to date has trained 2,480 volunteers. The volunteers act as mentors for inmates six months before and six months after they are released.

Roberts said get-tough-on-crime laws have had a lot to do with the rising prison population. He alluded to the 22-year prison sentence given to a man in May for failing to register as a sex offender in Shawnee County.

“If you give someone 22 years for failure to register, you’re going to be paying for them for 22 years,” he said.