Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has been one of the most outspoken conservative leaders in support of criminal justice reform. He declared, “We should not be resigned to allowing generation after generation to return to prison because they don’t have the tools to break the cycle. I personally favor a number of these faith-based approaches. But if there are other approaches, let’s try them. This is an enormous problem, and since the ’70s, we have basically just said we’ll lock people up.”i
Brownback, one of the sponsors of the federal Second Chance Act signed by President George W. Bush to facilitate successful offender reentry, inspired positive changes in Kansas when he told a forum in 2005: “I want to see recidivism cut in half in the next five years, and I want it to start in Kansas.”ii
In response to a high rate of re-offending by ex-prisoners, in 2007 the state legislature funded a range of programs—such as education, drug treatment, and supportive housing—to help them reintegrate. The approach appeared to work: the number of ex-offenders returning to prison dropped by 16 percent from 2007 to 2009.iii
However, in 2010, the inmate count and recidivism began to creep up again after funding was reduced for these alternative approaches. In August 2010, the Kansas Sentencing Commission reported a prison population of 8,269, ten more than the system’s capacity, and the commission projects the population rising by another 2000 over ten years.iv Nonetheless, the state still has far fewer inmates than it was projected to have at this time prior to the 2007 changes.
In April 2016, the Kansas legislature passed—and Gov. Brownback signed—SB 367, a sweeping bill aimed at reforming the state’s underperforming juvenile justice system. This legislation comes on the heels of a 2013 DOJ report indicating that the state has the nation’s sixth highest juvenile incarceration rate. While youth arrests have been falling in the state, Kansas’ performance has nonetheless fallen behind the national average for over a decade, as the number of youths in community supervision or residential commitments haven’t fallen at an equal pace.
SB 367 seeks to spend less money incarcerating such relatively low-risk youth offenders—who can be better served in community-based programs while living at home—and focus resources on higher-risk cases.
Another important aspect of the legislation is to put more youths into local programming that will reduce the likelihood of their reoffending after their sentence is finished, thus protecting public safety and reducing the numbers of new victims to crimes, while also reducing the later costs within the criminal justice system.