Reducing incarceration could cut costs while helping our fellow Kansans
The number of Kansas women who are incarcerated in jail has grown more than 1,232% and in prison by 644%, writes Susan Quinn. (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)
Industrial engineers are system engineers. We work to understand where pain occurs in processes so people can function more easily.
A maxim that resonated with me when I studied industrial engineering was the notion that “to err is human.” Those who make mistakes should neither be blamed nor punished. Instead, we strive to look at the entire system and improve the process.
People make mistakes. We all do.
In December, I wrote an opinion piece in hopes of inspiring Kansans to become informed and engage with their state legislators. During the first half of the Kansas legislative session, I’ve learned some of the legislative committees are downright fun to watch! The House Judiciary Committee is amazing in the way it takes such a heavy topic and transforms it into a warm, informative platform where lawmakers and citizens alike work together to improve our laws. However, there is much work to be done.
For example, did you know that if Kansas were a country, we would incarcerate the most people per capita than any other country in the world? That isn’t to say that we incarcerate more people per capita than any other U.S. state, but we live in Kansas and should start problem solving at home. In Shawnee County, where I live, taxes for policing and incarcerating people make up about half of our local county taxes. We simply cannot afford it. Most people in Kansas jails haven’t been convicted; they are awaiting trial.
From 1980 to 2015, incarceration in Kansas has exploded. The number of Kansas women who are incarcerated in jail has grown more than 1,232% and in prison by 644%. Although women are incarcerated far less often than men, when comparing Kansas’ rate of incarceration for women, we are far out of line with global norms, locking up women at 8 to 10 times the rates of our closest international allies.
However, violent crimes have not increased in Kansas over the same span. They have remained relatively stable, at about 400 per 100,000.
Here’s what else I learned: The vast majority of prisoners leaving incarceration won’t have valid driver’s license. According to the Kansas Department of Corrections, a study of 860 people leaving incarceration in 2022 showed just 46 with valid driver’s licenses. That’s 5%.
How are you to reintegrate into society if you have no valid driver's license? It is nearly impossible to live anywhere in Kansas without a valid driver's license. At least if you are expected to provide for yourself with a job and go to the grocery store now and then. Without the ability to drive a car legally, how would you get by?
– Susan Quinn
How are you to reintegrate into society if you have no valid driver’s license? It is nearly impossible to live anywhere in Kansas without a valid driver’s license. At least if you are expected to provide for yourself with a job and go to the grocery store now and then. Without the ability to drive a car legally, how would you get by?
Sure, you are able-bodied. And you want to work so that you can reintegrate into society. But how do you get to work? And who is going to hire you when the first checkbox on the job application is “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Do we want to decrease the number of crimes people are committing or do we want revenge?
Violent criminals should be incarcerated. Frankly, those who exploit others for sex also need to be incarcerated. At least until we can determine what works to decrease violent crime.
For everyone else though, we cannot afford the luxury of revenge. Who exactly are we avenging when we put someone behind bars for having drugs in their possession? If someone is taking drugs, that’s a health issue. They are unwell. When someone is unwell, you send them to a hospital to get help. You do not send a person to jail or prison for a broken leg. That won’t help them heal.
Think about all the extra money we’d have if we incarcerated fewer people. We might be able to afford to expand Medicaid. We could help localities invest in affordable housing and support the new opportunities the Commerce Department is bringing to our state through APEX.
There have been bright spots. I learned that with funds from the Second Chance Act, Salina recently created affordable housing opportunities for those reentering their community from jails and prisons.
If you didn’t know about the Second Chance Act, don’t feel bad – I didn’t either! You are fortunate that your world isn’t shaken with worry over incarceration. The act was signed in 2007 by President George W. Bush in hopes of supporting local governments and nonprofits to work to improve recidivism and improve outcomes for people leaving incarceration.
There’s another law you should know about: the First Step Act. President Trump signed it in 2018. That one is more complex, but it’s also a step in the right direction. Over the past couple of years, it’s made a difference for incarceration rates.
Now I’m more informed. Will it make a difference? Maybe. While I followed along with House Bill 2073, an effort to eliminate fines and fees for juveniles, I was disappointed to see it stopped by House and Senate leadership. There’s always next year. Watch with me as the young people from Progeny learn whether their efforts will make a difference. Then, let’s do this for adult offenders so they can reintegrate.
Alexander Pope created the maxim: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” As people come back to our communities, let’s support their efforts to rejoin us.
Susan Quinn is an engineer in northeast Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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