Criminal Justice Reform Commission explores high costs of incarceration in Kansas

Patrick Armstrong, of the Council of State Governors Justice Center, estimated Kansas spent $43 million in 2019 to incarcerate for supervision violations and an additional $41 million for drug-related offenses. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas commission is teaming with a national justice initiative to rethink how and where state taxpayer dollars are being spent in the criminal justice system in order to reduce financial waste amid a budget shortfall.

Kansas joins more than 30 states who have implemented the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a federally funded program that uses data collection to address the high cost of corrections and reinvest those funds in strategies to decrease crime and recidivism, or the tendency of a criminal to re-offend.

The state currently faces an estimated $1.4 billion shortfall next fiscal year because of lost revenue from COVID-19.

“We can’t talk about criminal justice issues without noting the current context financially,” said Patrick Armstrong, of the Council of State Governors Justice Center, which oversees the justice reinvestment process. “We have to think about where folks are going in the system, how people are responding when they mess up on supervision and when they mess up frequently, how do we help early so they won’t end up back in prison?”

Armstrong and colleagues from CSG on Monday presented initial findings from Kansas’ Justice Reinvestment Initiative to the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission. The commission will use the recommendations in its December report to Gov. Laura Kelly.

Currently, criminal justice costs, especially on the way into the system, are burning a hole in the state’s wallet. Armstrong estimated the state spent $43 million in 2019 to incarcerate people just for supervision violations and an additional $41 million for drug offenses.

Prison populations in Kansas are down nearly 10% from August 2019 to August 2020 as a result of narrowed admissions to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If the state were able to maintain that narrow front door to the criminal justice system, Armstrong estimates an average savings of $22 million a year in incarceration costs.

Kelly, along with commission chairman and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, announced the state would participate in the initiative last week to help cushion the state’s budget issues in the wake of the pandemic.

“It costs Kansas taxpayers nearly $30,000 annually to keep each person incarcerated in Kansas,” Kelly said. “Safely reducing that price tag gives us the chance to invest in substance use programs and mental health services that help stop the cycle of re-offending.”

Much of the presentation from Armstrong focused on the issue of recidivism, especially the relationship between parole violations and repeat trips to jail. It costs almost 10 times as much to incarcerate rather than supervise an offender, Armstrong said.

In the 2019 fiscal year, the Kansas Department of Corrections reported supervision violations and parole revocations made up 58% of all admissions for 2019.

Because of a state statute currently allowing for the transfer of community supervision from one jurisdiction to another, there also are an estimated 1,200 people under dual supervision, said Jennifer Kisela, of CSG.

Agencies often do not communicate and often duplicate activities and costs, like drug testing, case plans and payment of supervision fees.

“When resources are strained, we need to look at if there are opportunities to allow the supervision staff to work more effectively and at the same time reduce barriers to success for people who are on supervision,” Kisela said.

Barriers to success for those on supervision include lack of housing, employment and mental health services, all areas the commission plans to address in its final meetings.

Bennett said the commission would revisit additional Justice Reinvestment Initiative recommendations before its Dec. 1 deadline. The commission is also requesting a year extension to explore these and other issues of criminal justice further.