Panels on criminal justice reform, pretrial justice hone in on diversion tactics

Members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission focused on recommendations pertaining to diversion from jail for those with mental health or substance abuse issues. A report last week from the Kansas Supreme Court's Pretrial Justice Task Force also considered similar topics. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission have finalized recommendations on mental health and substance abuse reform to reduce prison population, recidivism and corrections costs in the state.

The commission approved recommendations to benefit state diversion programs and provide increased funding and access to local mental health facilities. Members also discussed recommending a potential reduction in penalties for possession of hard drugs.

One recommendation approved by the commission was to endorse a 2019 bill expanding the availability and funding of diversion options throughout Kansas. That bill died in a Senate committee, largely because of COVID-19, but passed unanimously through the House.

Sedgwick County district attorney Marc Bennett, chairman of the commission, said the recommendation would go hand in hand with a 2003 Senate bill providing substance abuse treatment for offenders convicted of drug possession.

“It’s going to identify Senate Bill 123 money for diverted defendants and also allowing, No. 2, the ability for prosecutors and county attorneys to sign memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, with their respective probation departments, whether that’s court services or community corrections, for supervision of the divertees,” Bennett said.

State legislators and community stakeholders on the commission moved Monday to send around 20 recommendations to state lawmakers for consideration and adoption. The commission also will request an additional year to discuss issues they were unable to tackle in 2020.

Currently, prosecutor’s offices must undergo supervision of someone on criminal justice diversion, and most offices lack the staff necessary, Bennett said. Some jurisdictions in Kansas are already doing this, but the bill would give authority to the practice statewide.

Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who supported the recommendation, said he was hoping to fast-track the bill.

“This is the same legislation that was suggested by three different subcommittees in our interim committee report,” Owens said. “I already have it on my list to have our reviser reintroduce, so, hopefully, we can get a good jump-start on that. This is one of our legislative priorities.”

Other approved recommendations include a package allowing the establishment of additional specialty courts in Kansas — an idea backed by the chief of the Kansas Supreme Court — and additional funding and added beds for certain substance abuse facilities.

The latter of those recommendations was mostly covered in the budget but was removed due to COVID-19 shortfalls, Owen said.

One recommendation suggested the punishment for all personal use drug possession charges be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor was tabled for further discussion if the commission is granted another year.

Several recommendations discussed during the meeting were echoed in the final report by the Kansas Supreme Court’s Pretrial Justice Task Force. The report, presented to the court Friday, culminates two years of research into pretrial detention practices in Kansas district courts.

The 84-page report made 19 recommendations ranging from basic education of courts and the public on liberty as a tenet of criminal justice to amendments to existing laws on pretrial supervision.

In July 2017, the Kansas Legislature adopted the Crisis Intervention Act to allow law enforcement officers to take persons with a mental illness or substance abuse problem to a crisis intervention center rather than jail. To date, however, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has yet to adopt regulations and thus has not licensed those centers.

The task force recommended KDADS act swiftly to issue regulations and license crisis centers to aid in diverting those needing treatment from detention centers.

Another recommendation to make state funds for drug treatment available for people in diversion programs for drug-related offense directly echoed the Criminal Justice Reform Commission’s recommendations.

Karen Arnold-Burger, chief judge of the Kansas Court of Appeals, chairwoman of the task force, said significant consideration was put toward the issue of monetary bond in these recommendations. According to Arnold-Burger, at any given moment, more than half of people in Kansas jails are awaiting trial and unable to post the monetary bond required for their release.

“Money bond is one tool judges use to reduce risk of flight or to ensure the accused appears in court, but other options could be considered,” Arnold-Burger said. “One is pretrial supervision with no-contact conditions, or drug and alcohol testing, which are designed to protect individual and public safety and to encourage the defendant to appear in court as scheduled.”

Chief Justice Marla Luckert received the report and acknowledged the considerable effort put into the recommendations.

“Best practices for pretrial release and alternatives to detention continue to be a point of state and national discussion, so I’m glad we initiated this comprehensive review when we did,” Luckert said. “This report provides a good foundation for policy discussions as we consider the best ways to manage pretrial concerns in Kansas courts.”