When I was elected governor, the people of Kansas entrusted me with an immense responsibility.
Every governor faces lofty challenges. But by any measure, the damage done to Kansas in the past several years was unprecedented.
Much attention was focused on the financial toll of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed tax strategies, and for good reason. The budget shortfalls and debt accumulated in the wake of massive income-tax cuts set up the Brownback administration and its legislative allies to decimate state programs.
Sadly, we’re still assessing the damage to core services in our state.
Of all the fallout — and it was far reaching — I’m particularly alarmed and saddened by the reckless changes that put so many Kansans in harm’s way.
One such crisis involves our state prisons, where overcrowding and staffing woes have fueled consistently volatile situations.
While prisons by their nature are risk-filled settings, sheer neglect and disregard for corrections employees’ welfare in the past several years made the ever-present danger practically unmanageable.
We’ve already had multiple riots at prisons, with substantial property damage. The ongoing practice of double-bunking maximum-security inmates has made a bad situation worse. Cramming too many prisoners into tight quarters only creates more stress and potential unrest.
Kansas has some 1,500 more offenders in prison today than a decade ago, but was forced to get by with the same level of staffing, program resources and housing capacity — more proof of poor decision-making in the past several years. Projections show the overall prison population in Kansas climbing from about 10,000 now to more than 12,000 in less than 10 years.
Due to the prior and irresponsible lack of support for corrections, Kansas also has over 300 open corrections officer positions. As a result, staff at El Dorado Correctional Facility are working back-to-back 16-hour shifts, leaving staff on the front line fatigued in an environment only growing more tense.
Something had to be done, and quickly.
Recently, our plan to alleviate the pressure by sending some Kansas inmates to an out-of-state correctional facility operated by a private company was questioned.
It wasn’t our first choice. The preference always is to put inmates in county jails when our state prisons are overcrowded, and some already are confined in those jails. A recent request for additional counties to house inmates resulted in more potential placements, but not nearly enough to ease overcrowding at prisons in El Dorado, Norton and Hutchinson — making it necessary to look outside Kansas, including private prison space as a last resort.
As a state senator, I opposed privatizing prisons in Kansas, and still do because of the tendency to put profits above inmate rehabilitation and release. The decision to send some of our inmates to a private, out-of-state prison, where space is available now, wasn’t made lightly. Considering the crowded inmate population and persistent danger for corrections workers, we had to provide relief as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, it’s also necessary to pursue long-term solutions to prison overcrowding. I support reform of our sentencing guidelines as a way to ease prison crowding. Many nonviolent drug offenders would be better served by treatment than incarceration, which also would be more cost efficient. Along with saving taxpayer dollars, this approach also would create more prison space for the most violent and dangerous offenders.
Sentencing reform cannot happen overnight, however. A new, bipartisan Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission is being formed and will address state sentencing guidelines. But with a plan for the commission’s final report in December 2020, any significant proposals regarding sentencing policies wouldn’t be considered until the 2021 legislative session.
We couldn’t wait for sentencing reform to address the existing danger in our prisons. We had to act. Our hardworking corrections employees deserve no less.
My administration inherited programs crippled across the board. Still, we’ve been heartened by the unwavering dedication of state employees doing their best to function as we rebuild the services Kansans need and deserve.
It will take a steady hand to fix many serious problems. I take that responsibility seriously, and won’t be satisfied until our dedicated corrections employees can go to work knowing we’ve done everything we can to keep them safe.
The well-being and safety of all Kansans remains my top priority.