Lawmakers renew interest in policies to help reduce Kansas prison population

Proposals include enhanced credits for good behavior, drug diversion programs, early release for terminal illness

Randy Bowman, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, spoke to a bill Tuesday opening an avenue for release of those charged with drug crimes who have served 50% of their sentence.(Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A group of bills aimed at targeted criminal justice and prison reform are seeing a revival after a previous attempt to pass portions of the legislation was unsuccessful last year.

The legislation, which was introduced in committees in both chambers through matching sets of individual bills, would focus on three areas: extending medical release for inmates dying of terminal illnesses, establishing a state drug treatment program for those who enter into diversion agreements on felony drug charges, and reducing prison population through enhanced good behavior credits.

The bills are sponsored by the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight.

Randy Bowman, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the bills — specifically the one increasing good time credits for certain inmates — would help reduce the state’s prison population.

“This lets folks demonstrate that they can behave the way we want them to when they come out and be our neighbors, our coworkers and go to church with us, etc,” Bowman said. “So it really becomes a policy question of how much does the Kansas Legislature want to invest in continuing to contain the folks that are demonstrating the desirable behaviors. It’s a capacity management tool, and it’s an impactful one compared to all the other little pieces of legislation we’ve seen this year and last year, this is the most impactful. It helps manage and prioritize resources who are the greatest risk to public safety.”

The bills were met with overall positive reactions in Senate and House committees on Tuesday. Two of the bills had passed the House during the 2019-2020 session with overwhelming support but stalled in the Senate. 

The Kansas Sentencing Commission, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas all support the bills. Johnson County Deputy Sheriff Greg Smith and Missey Smith, the mother of a murder victim, opposed allowing for extended terminal illness release. 

Scott Schultz, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, said the bills update existing policies so they are more likely to be used. The early terminal medical release bill would allow for an inmate to be released if a Kansas doctor determines the inmate has a terminal illness and would die within the next 120 days.

“When they’re dealing with those medical issues, cognitive mental health conditions, terminal illnesses, they are not only more costly to care for, but they’re actually the least likely to be arrested and return to prison,” Schultz said. “It’s a cost issue but it’s also a bit of humanity.” 

Schultz said this improves the existing policy, which allows an inmate to be released if a doctor determines they likely would die within 30 days. 

The Department of Corrections, which initiates the process, is often unable to complete the paperwork for release within 30 days, creating a situation where very few inmates are even eligible. The process is lengthy because the Department of Corrections seeks input from the court, the prosecutor, the victims and the victims’ families. The department also assists the inmate in applying for health insurance programs and finding a place to live. 

Beyond the medical determination, an inmate’s age, medical history, criminal history and other factors would be weighed. Inmates who have committed certain violent crimes, like first-degree murder and child sexual abuse, would not be considered for the program. Ultimately, the Prisoner Review Board makes the final determination on release. 

Bowman said that the program was used for one inmate in 2020, which was the first time someone met the criteria and was able to be released in the 30 days since 2013. 

The Department of Corrections estimates roughly 10 prisoners per year would be eligible for early medical release should the bill be approved. Bowman and Schultz noted that the medical release would not have dramatic impacts on the prison population or the department’s budget, but it would bring Kansas’ policies up to par with most other states that provide for early medical release for terminal illness. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings for all three bills and took no action. The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee took no action on the terminal medical release but passed the diversion drug treatment legislation favorably out of committee.