Once a Model for Reform, Kansas Cuts Vital Prison Services

This comes from Matt Kelley
April 09, 2010
From the Prison Law Blog

In recent years, Kansas has been a standard-bearer for corrections reform. It’s managed to inspire reformers around the country by reducing recidivism through pre-release education and post-release services — but all that is being jeopardized now by budget cuts that could gut its core programs.

A we’ve written here recently, state budget crises have led to both good and bad cutbacks in prison and parole programs. For many states, the Great Recession has served as a wake-up call to rein in wasteful, destructive incarceration policies. Elsewhere, budget shortfalls have meant cuts to promising, innovative programs that are helping former prisoners succeed and helping defendants avoid jail through alternatives like education, work release and drug treatment.

Kansas, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. Just two years ago, its innovative reentry services had a budget of $12 million. This year, though, such services are getting less than half of that — $5.3 million.

Prior to these cuts, the state was extraordinarily successful: it had reduced recidivism dramatically and cut parole violations by a third. The very programs responsible, though, are now getting the ax. An excellent story by Rick Montgomery in the Kansas City Star paints a bleak picture of these cuts. The bottom line? While it’s too early to tell how the cuts will affect recidivism, unraveling the safety net so suddenly can’t be a good thing. It’s quite likely that instead of funding treatment, the state will simply end up paying for prison cells to house a greater number of people re-committing crime. The price of human suffering and diminished safety is yet another cost — one that doesn’t so readily translate into a cash value.

Even as Kansas’s model is threatened, other states — like Michigan — are making more judicious cuts where they count, closing prisons and focusing on services and treatment. Likewise, California is aiming to address its massive prison problem by reducing the number of prisoners who get sent back for petty parole violations.

Meanwhile, Kansas looks like it’s rapidly losing its status as a model reform state, and instead becoming a symbol of precisely what not to do.

Via Prison Law Blog

Maximum sentence for the minimum crime

Eric Ruder at Socialist Worker.org

March 16, 2010

ROBERT FERGUSON’S nearly eight-year prison sentence in early March
for shoplifting a bag of shredded cheese from a California convenience
store made headlines around the world. How could such a petty crime
trigger such a lengthy sentence? Whether from a moral or public policy
point of view, the outcome seemed absurd.

But the harsh sentence represents only the final–and perhaps not
even the most outlandish–failure of California’s criminal justice to
deliver justice.

At Ferguson’s March 1 sentencing hearing, for example, prosecutors
urged the judge to impose a lengthy sentence because of Ferguson’s prior
convictions. As far as they were concerned, they had already shown
leniency by not seeking a life sentence. Prosecutors had only backed
down after a psychologist’s report concluded that Ferguson suffers from
bipolar disorder, which impairs his ability to control impulses during
manic phases.

Nevertheless, Deputy District Attorney Clinton Parish still asserted
at the hearing that Ferguson is a “career criminal,” pointing to his 13
prior convictions that put him behind bars for 22 of the past 27 years.

Never mind that six prior burglary convictions occurred some 30 years
ago. Or that Ferguson’s misdemeanor assault conviction was for throwing
a soda can at a sibling when he was a teenager.

Or that the only reasonable place for a man suffering from mental
illness is a mental health facility, not the overburdened California
prison system–which a panel of judges two years ago found to be so
overwhelmed that it “worsens many of the risk factors for suicide among
inmates and increases the prevalence and acuity of mental illness.”

Those same judges ordered California to lower its prison population
by more than 40,000 inmates so that the system would not exceed 137
percent of its intended maximum capacity of 84,000.

Two years later, the state of California is still staring at one of
the highest incarceration rates in the nation and a sprawling prison
system that costs the state $10.8 billion–about 10 percent of its
annual budget–to house 170,000 prisoners. Today, California spends more
to lock people up than it does on the University of California system,
once the premier public institution of higher education in the U.S.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

BUT ROBERT Ferguson is only the latest in a long history of
sentencing outrages stretching back to the 1990s, when voters
overwhelmingly passed Proposition 184, mandating a life sentence for
anyone convicted of a third felony.

Other cases that made headlines were the 1994 life sentence for Jerry
Dewayne Williams, who stole a pizza, and a 25-years-to-life sentence
for Johnny Quirino, convicted in 1996 of petty theft of razor blades.

What makes such stories all the more preposterous is the gaping hole
in California’s budget–in part the product of the rise of California’s
prison population in the wake of tough sentencing rules such as
three-strikes. It costs about $49,000 a year to house an inmate in
California’s prison system.

The painful cuts facing practically every social service and public
institution in California have yet to convince politicians and
public-policy makers of the need for a fundamental reform of
tough-on-crime laws.

Between the 1970s and the present, California’s prison population
more than quintupled–from less than 30,000 to around 170,000.

For three decades now, the logic of “getting tough on crime” has
justified harsh sentencing laws, a prison-building spree and worsening
police brutality. Defenders of the system say that such policies are
necessary to deal with the scourge of drugs and violent crime. But they
can only do so by ignoring the facts about drug use and crime.

Thus, law-and-order policies have filled the nation’s prisons with
hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, disproportionately
Blacks and Latinos, even though whites use illegal drugs at very similar

In the words of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in
1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the
war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with
racial politics.

The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican
Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of
crime and welfare to attract poor and working-class white voters who
were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and
affirmative action.

In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House
Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to
devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.”

It’s time to stop the runaway freight train of California’s prison
system–and the whole country’s law-and-order drive that incarcerate
more people than any nation on the planet.