Kansas criminal justice commission reviews cost-effective recommendations for state lawmakers

By: - September 21, 2021 3:53 pm

Members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission, led by Marc Bennett, reported back Monday on potential recommendations for dual-supervision, offender registry issues and more. Legislators and panel leaders expressed optimism these recommendations could gain approval from the Legislature. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube)

TOPEKA — Legal experts and state legislators serving on a panel to reform the Kansas criminal justice system are optimistic their next set of recommendations will gain traction when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January. 

During their second year of work, members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission worked to establish recommendations for dual supervision, the offender registry and diversion methods, among other areas. Commission leaders said their recommendations, while not finalized, offer low-cost, high-impact modifications for a more efficient criminal justice system.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, chairman of the commission, said in his experience recommendations with a limited effect on bed space are more likely to be approved by the Legislature.

“Last year, we had kind of a limited window of opportunity for things to get through, and the things that got through the legislature were the ones that didn’t cost the legislature anything but had potential to make a positive impact,” Bennett said. “Most everything I’m hearing today is in that category.”

The commission previously sent about 20 recommendations to state lawmakers focused on mental health, substance abuse and alternatives to traditional prison or probation to reduce recidivism. Many recommendations were left untouched after Senate and House judiciary committee hearings, as those legislative panels handled bills left over from the shortened 2020 session. 

The most significant bill backed by the panel that gained approval from both lawmakers and the governor created a drug abuse treatment program for people on diversion. The Legislature chose to extend the commission earlier this year through December, shifting focus to diversion programs and supervision.

With the due date for the report approaching, subcommittees are finalizing work to be discussed by the commission at large. In a meeting Monday when chairs of the subcommittees reported on that work, Rep. Stephen Owens expressed hope these recommendations would fare well before the House and Senate

“I think we’re in good shape with what I’m hearing. A lot of this stuff really makes good sense,” the Hesston Republican said. “I look forward to getting it out and having a deeper conversation about how we can actually get it through the Legislature.”

Recommendations from the Subcommittee on Proportionality and Sentencing focus on the Kansas Public Offender Registry, which lists more than 10,000 convicted sex offenders, 5,000 drug offenders and other convicted offenders. There is a push to reduce the punishment for failure to register, which advocates suggest are far too harsh.

“This subcommittee had put out a survey last year that had almost 300 respondents, and the overwhelming majority of those people had said something about supporting lessening penalties for failing to register,” said Jennifer Roth, of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She added they were also reviewing a possible exit mechanism for certain offenders. 

Bennett noted this could result in an increased caseload for judges, making the recommendation less likely to succeed. The subcommittee is also considering resubmitting recommendations that were unsuccessful last session.

The Subcommittee on Dual-Supervision has set a focus for its recommendations on reducing instances in which criminal justice agencies duplicate resources to supervise an offender. According to data gathered by the Council of State Governments, 1,500 to 3,600 people are currently under supervision by two or more Kansas agencies or courts.

“When (dual supervision) occurs, there is undoubtedly some duplication of resources that can cause some confusion among people as to what their requirements are,” said John Francis, a professor at Washburn University School of Law. “It was generally observed that reporting to multiple people can also cause obstacles to holding down employment and can overall just be a barrier to success.”

Subcommittees will meet at least one more time in October and November before the commission report deadline of Dec. 1.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.