Kansas House OKs bills on drug treatment, Indigenous people, abandoned wells

Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, championed a bill Thursday which would divert Kansans convicted of crimes stemming from drug addiction away from prisons toward a certified treatment program. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A bill passed Thursday by the Kansas House would establish a program diverting people with drug offenses from prison toward resources to fight their addiction.

The legislation, which passed by a 123-0 vote, would establish a certified drug abuse treatment program in place of criminal proceedings. Prosecutors would be allowed to sign agreements with judges and community corrections for supervision.

Defendants who pass through the program would not be convicted while those who do not would be tried.

The same measure passed through the House in 2020 but died in the Senate after the pandemic cut short the legislative session. It would build upon a past Senate bill that allowed diversion through a drug program for those convicted of a felony by expanding eligibility to those first entering the criminal justice system, said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston.

“Let’s give them the opportunity to do what’s right, to turn their lives around, to take care of their families, to take care of themselves and beat their addiction so that they can be free to be good citizens of the state,” Owens said.

The House passed a trio of bills without opposition Thursday, sending the measures to the Senate for review. Representatives moved favorably on two criminal justice-related bills, including the drug treatment diversion program, and one that would aid in plugging thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, also spoke in favor of the drug treatment diversion option, although he did say the bill would likely require initial funding. Estimates from the budget office suggest it could cost between $88,368 and $265,104 from the state general fund in 2022.

“This is a pay for it now or pay for it later,” Owens responded. “This is an investment in the people of our state and in their future productivity.”

The second criminal justice-oriented bill would require training for law enforcement agencies on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. This bill also received unanimous support during the 2020 legislative session.

As of Jan. 7, there are more than 696 missing American Indian or Alaskan Native people, including three in Kansas, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. A 2020 report using data from the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a nonprofit, Indigenous-led research organization, said 2,306 American Indian women and girls in the United States have gone missing within the past 40 years, with 58% connected to homicide.

Rep. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, said she is often asked if this is an issue that is impacting Indigenous people in Kansas. She cited a presentation by the attorney general and director of human trafficking, education and outreach that shows Kansas’ geographic location and the two major highways — I-70 and I-35 — make the state vulnerable to human trafficking.

“There are many areas of issue that need to be addressed about missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, but HB2008 is a great first step,” Haswood said. “Providing for the attorney general to coordinate training will bring awareness to our officers who are often the first to respond to missing and murdered Indigenous people’s cases.”

Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said troubling testimony his panel heard made this an urgent issue needing some immediate response.

“We need to bring light to this issue, start addressing it and make some positive progress,” Patton said. 

The House also passed a bill that would clarify legal responsibility and combine two funds used to plug thousands of abandoned gas and oil wells across Kansas. Estimates indicate there are currently about 5,600 wells that require plugging across the state.

Currently, Kansas has two funds to draw from to plug abandoned wells — one for those dug before 1996 and one for those dug after. Combined, the funds total $6.73 million.

During a hearing last week, proponents described the bill as a “win-win-win” for the regulatory process, the oil and gas industry and the environment.

Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, recalled a 2017 incident in which he dealt with an issue of legal responsibility and funding for an abandoned gas well in his district. 

“I just want to make sure we are properly funded and prepared when it happens again because it’s not if, it’s a question of when,” Delperdang said.