Government & Politics

Kansas lawmakers call for a commission to consider changes in criminal justice system

As Kansas grapples with over-crowded prisons and a shortage of corrections officers, the legislature is considering formation of a panel to study and recommend changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

HB 2018 would create a Criminal Justice Reform Commission, charged with analyzing sentencing guidelines, placement of prisoners and other processes.

Its 20 members, appointed by the state attorney general, the governor or other state officials, would include lawmakers, public defenders, district attorneys, judges, law professors, mental health professionals and corrections officials.

The group would submit two reports to the legislature: on Dec. 1, 2019 and Dec. 1, 2020.

A key provision of the legislation empowers the commission to study all matters that it determines to be “appropriate and necessary” to complete a thorough review of the criminal justice system.

“We don’t want to tie their hands in an unintended way, where they might identify a particular area that is worthy of some greater depth of investigation,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

The group’s findings could have major implications as Kansas looks to fix problems caused by prison overcrowding. Kansas prisons have a combined operating capacity of 9,971 inmates. But as of Feb. 22, the prisons were holding 10,075 inmates.

Earlier this month, the El Dorado Correctional Facility reported 84 vacancies among its 360 uniformed officer positions. For the 12 months ending with June 2018, the turnover rate was almost 54 percent.

State corrections officials, looking for places to expand the system, are looking at reopening a dormant facility at Larned that used to hold juvenile inmates.

The Larned Juvenile Corrections Facility closed in 2018. The decision to close the prison, which could hold 128 youth, was made in 2016 amid falling numbers of juvenile inmates.

Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz has mentioned reopening Larned as a way to create more capacity, though it would hold adult inmates if it reopened.

“We are most interested in (facilities) that would provide medium custody or higher space and frankly at the top of my list of what I’d recommend at this point are reopening what used to be the juvenile facility at Larned,” Werholtz told lawmakers last week.

Gov. Laura Kelly has expressed interest in sentencing reform, which could potentially lower the number of new inmates coming into state prisons. But absent significant changes to stem population growth, corrections officials will have to look at other expansion options.

Werholtz said the agency would have to “embark on a substantial building program over the next few years” unless changes are made.

But there are challenges.

El Dorado, for example, was designed for future expansion, Werholtz said, but the prison is struggling to staff it at its current size. Officials have discussed whether enough inmates can be moved out to allow the closing of an entire wing because of staffing issues, he said.

HB 2018 was originally intended to repeal the Secretary of State’s power to prosecute election crimes. But that language was stripped out and replaced in a widely criticized legislative practice known as “gut-and-go.

Lawmakers say it is a device that allows them to finish their work within the 90 days legally allotted for legislative sessions. Critics say it diminishes transparency.

Jennings circulated the new legislation to committee members before making the switch on Monday.

“Sneaking up at the last moment with surprise kind of things is not a great way to go,” Jennings, a Lakin Republican, acknowledged. A similar bill regarding the secretary of state’s prosecution power was passed out of committee earlier this year.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, sponsored the original bill but said he was glad to see it replaced with language for criminal justice reform.

“It’s probably long overdue and I hope that this becomes law because I’m going to be anxious to see what this group puts together,” Carmichael said.

HB 2018 was favorably passed out of committee on Monday and now heads to the House floor for a vote, which Jennings said he expects to happen sometime this week.

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