Government & Politics

Kansas is short on prison guards, Highway Patrol troopers amid budget woes

Corrections officer Cynthia Miller handcuffed an inmate before he was transported from a segregation unit at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Ellsworth, Kan. Low wages among Kansas corrections officers are causing many to leave the field.
Corrections officer Cynthia Miller handcuffed an inmate before he was transported from a segregation unit at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Ellsworth, Kan. Low wages among Kansas corrections officers are causing many to leave the field. The Associated Press

Kansas needs more corrections officers — and at a higher pay scale to keep them from bolting for jobs elsewhere.

The staffing problem at state prisons is disquieting and potentially dangerous, lawmakers say, and it’s likely to be one of the squeakier wheels in the legislative session that starts this month. Another: the worrisome understaffing at the Kansas Highway Patrol.

But what to do when there’s no grease? Lawmakers don’t have money in the current budget for new spending, and a big shortfall is projected for next fiscal year’s budget, which begins July 1.

Ray Roberts, who retired as secretary of corrections at the end of 2015, told legislators last fall of his concerns about a 16 percent vacancy rate in corrections officer staff and an average turnover of nearly 30 percent.

Roberts cited low pay compared with some nearby states and local departments.

“We have a lot of churning that takes place,” he said. “The salaries are not competitive.”

The starting salary for Kansas uniformed corrections staff is $28,309, about $10,000 lower than in Colorado and Iowa, corrections officials said. Missouri’s starting salary is about the same as in Kansas.

Meanwhile, Kansas is experiencing a growing prison population, and officials estimate the state will be short hundreds of prison beds for male inmates by 2018.

Rep. John Rubin, Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said legislators must find the money to fix the problem — and quickly. Overtime is helping, but that’s not a safe solution with lots of staff working extra hours, he said.

“It heightens the risk of incidents involving inmates and could put the lives of corrections staff at risk,” Rubin said. “That’s a risk to public safety I don’t think we can tolerate.”

Starting pay of about $13 an hour is too low, he said, and often those who get experience in the state system find a better-paying job in other jurisdictions.

“It’s far too little pay for what they do and the risks they take,” Rubin said.

Worries about safety and risk also wear on Col. Mark Bruce, Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent. Although 20 new troopers recently graduated from the patrol’s academy, the patrol remains 80 to 85 officers below full staffing of 500.

That means longer response times and difficulties providing proper officer backup, particularly in rural areas, where one trooper could be covering several counties. It’s also a problem in cities such as Manhattan and Salina, Bruce said.

The patrol needs to be ready for circumstances that have erupted nationally, Bruce said, from clashes with law enforcement to active shooter situations, circumstances that require quick, unified responses.

“When we’re down in numbers it puts officers at risk, and most importantly it puts the public at greater risk because of our inability to respond appropriately,” Bruce said. “Those are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night.”

Bruce said he will ask the Legislature in the coming session to fund more staffing with a $7.50 increase in the state’s $10 motor vehicle title fee. The fee hasn’t increased for at least a dozen years, he said.

That revenue would allow the patrol to get back to full staffing in three years, he said.

“This is a user fee,” he said. “Only people driving cars pay for it. Based on the financial landscape of the state, I don’t see another option.”

Bruce said the Legislature and the governor have been responsive to the patrol’s needs. A new trooper pay schedule took effect this month, the patrol now has a deferred retirement option, and a full-time recruiter has been hired.

Fixing the pay structure for corrections officers will be a challenge, Rubin acknowledged.

Republican legislative leaders have said tax increases are off the table in the next session. Gov. Sam Brownback says that his tax policy — the lowering of income tax rates and the elimination of income taxes for many small-business owners — is improving the job picture in the state and shouldn’t be altered, as critics have argued.

That means money must be located somewhere in the budget, Rubin said.

His target — education funds — will be controversial. K-12 and higher education spending take up nearly two-thirds of the state’s general fund budget, he said, and he wants to look there for overspending and waste.

“It’s folly to say we can’t scrutinize and look at areas where we can reduce spending in education,” Rubin said. “Education is a core function of state government, but it’s not the only one, and public safety is another.”

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld

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