Government & Politics

A mass commutation in Kansas? ‘Something to consider’ after Oklahoma frees 400

Hands behind bars in prison.
Hands behind bars in prison. File photo

A mass commutation of offenders in Kansas is “something to consider,” the state’s corrections leader said just days after Oklahoma commuted hundreds of sentences.

Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda, appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly, opened the door to the idea at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. A commutation does not eliminate a criminal record or reverse a conviction, but shortens or ends a sentence—providing early release for inmates.

Asked at the hearing to comment on what happened in Oklahoma, Zmuda said the governor and Legislature could consider it.

“Obviously, it has to match up with the values of our communities and begin smartly, but I think it’s something to consider,” Zmuda said. “I know we’re looking at a number of ways to reform the system and some ways to help mitigate some of our overcrowding and that’s certainly one that could be considered.”

In Oklahoma on Friday, a state panel approved commutations for more than 400 inmates. Officials said it is the largest single-day mass commutation in U.S. history.

Kansas prisons have been in various states of crisis for years, challenged by an inmate population that stands at approximately 10,000—exceeding the system’s capacity of 9,924.

Last month, the Kansas Department of Corrections announced 120 inmates had been transferred to a private prison in Arizona operated by CoreCivic, a company often criticized for poor performance. The move is intended to lessen overcrowding and relieve pressure on overworked corrections officers.

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said lawmakers don’t have an appetite to build additional prison space. “All avenues” need to be considered to ease overcrowding, he said.

“I would prefer to release non-violent prisoners that have come close to serving their required time than I would shipping prisoners to out-of-state locations,” Longbine said.

“Kansas can be a model for criminal justice reform, both in terms of reducing mass incarceration and more broadly,” ACLU of Kansas director Nadine Johnson said in response to Zmuda’s comments. She added the organization looked forward to working with others “to see this come to fruition.”

But Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he has mixed feelings about a mass commutation, noting that his brother, Frank Denning, is the former sheriff of Johnson County.

Releasing non-violent inmates “sounds like a fantastic idea,” Denning said. But he cautioned that if someone who has been released early commits a violent act “there’s hell to pay.”

In Kansas, a prisoner review board processes pardon and commutation applications. But the decision to grant or reject a requests rests with the governor – giving Kelly wide latitude.

Recent governors have used the power sparingly. In his final days in office, Gov. Jeff Colyer granted two pardons and one commutation. Gov. Sam Brownback granted a single pardon.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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