The Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission subcommittee on race and criminal justice discusses public defender funding and representation, data collection, and mental health care for officers during a meeting Tuesday. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Members of a legislative panel said a refreshed approach to the intersection of criminal justice reform and race is needed after decades of inaction.
Melody Brannon, a federal public defender in Kansas, said having the same conversations on police reform with the same ideas won’t move the needle to where marginalized communities need it to be.
“If we’re still talking about training or diversity hiring and that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last 10 years, it hasn’t worked,” Brannon said. “Let’s look for something completely new and different and not take just these really small steps in what we’re trying to do here.”
The Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission subcommittee on race and criminal justice met Tuesday to discuss ways in which the commission could include race-centered directives in its upcoming report to Gov. Laura Kelly.
The commission was created by the Legislature in 2019 to review all aspects of the criminal justice system and draft specific propositions to be presented to the governor in a report by Dec. 1.
Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice is also expected to submit a report to the governor before December.
Brannon, a nonvoting committee member, raised issues in her field of public defense. Most concerning to her was a lack of funding and dedicated representation in several major areas of the state, including Wyandotte County.
Tabitha Owen, a Smith County attorney, said those facing serious charges in rural Kansas have limited representation.
“In rural Kansas, there are no local public defender’s offices,” Owen said. “We have one woman who drives out an hour and a half for serious felonies, and she’s fantastic, but that’s a long drive for her, and she has cases in Saline County and about six more counties surrounding us.”
This lack of qualified public defenders has left many members of the Kansas Black community hurting for representation, said Larry Burks, president of the Wichita branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In some cases, he said, as little as two meetings a year may take place between the public defender and client.
The issues are exacerbated by the disparity in funding in state and county prosecutor’s offices, said Mark McCormick, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. This leaves the accused and his representation unprepared and under-resourced, he said.
“If you can fund one office, you can fund the other, so we need to pay close attention to the issue of funding equity,” McCormick said.
Other members wanted a more proactive approach focusing on the law enforcement side, nipping issues in the bud before they reached the courtroom.
D.M. Gates, a Wichita pastor, said the commission should take heed of the public outcry this summer over the killing of several innocent Black men and women by law enforcement officers.
“We need to focus on those actually enforcing the law. We’re talking about black and brown bodies not even having the chance to be in these courtrooms,” Gates said. “What I’m focusing on is how do we better prepare a predominantly white criminal justice system to engage and deal with communities of color.”
The committee discussed increased data collection across the state from law enforcement, including expanding from only citation-based data collection to all encounters or interactions.
Several committee members also encouraged more thorough mental health screenings and consistent check-ups throughout an officer’s career.
“Under stress we see prejudice, but it’s also worn-out officers. We have to talk about health,” Gates said. “A good system with broken people in it is still a broken system.”
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