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AG: Treatment funding key to Kansas criminal justice reform

Kansas’ top law enforcement official says boosting spending on services for the mentally ill and treating substance abuse is crucial to reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt contends extra funding for such services, particularly in rural communities, will deal with underlying problems fueling many offenders’ crimes. He said without such services, local officials frequently face a bad choice of locking up someone who’d benefit more from treatment or leaving that person in the community to cause more harm.

But Schmidt, a Republican, believes bipartisan interest in such spending has grown among other state officials as the GOP-controlled Legislature prepares to open its next annual session Jan. 13. State prisons are full: The inmate population of nearly 10,000 is slightly more than the prison system’s stated capacity and is expected to grow by nearly 14% over the next 10 years.

“My sense is that under the label of criminal justice reform, the stars are aligning to actually try to follow through and put in place the types of interventions that have a fighting chance of changing the behavior of some population in our criminal justice system,” Schmidt told the AP.

Schmidt laid out the case for the additional spending this week in interviews with The Associated Press and The Topeka Capital-Journal. His comments came after new Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert said in an AP interview that she wants to work with local officials, legislators and other state officials on dealing more effectively with mentally ill Kansans, including on “what happens before there is a police call.”

“What is the best way to deal with that person, should they be in the criminal system — or should they be somewhere else?” Luckert said. “And that really, often, is dependent upon resources in a community.”

Luckert said that she wants the state to expand special courts to handle criminal cases involving veterans, drug offenders and the mentally ill to focus more on treating their underlying problems. Schmidt sees promise in so-called specialty courts, but he said the state also has to support them with increases spending on services.

“There are lots of different good ideas on how to get people into a path that has a chance of changing their behavior, but none of them amount to much if there’s not treatment services and intervention services along that path,” Schmidt said.

A task force on mental health has recommended that Kansas add more than 200 beds for the mentally ill over the next five years to at its state hospitals or at regional hospitals and bolster state hospital staffing, at an estimated cost of up to $87 million.

A separate state Criminal Justice Reform Commission not only endorsed those proposals this year but also recommended that the state renovate space within its prison system to provide from 200 to 250 beds for treating inmates’ substance abuse and another 200 to 250 beds for geriatric care for aging inmates. The cost of both projects together could be more than $14 million.

The state’s financial picture has improved significantly since 2017, when the GOP-controlled Legislature repudiated a tax-cutting experiment under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that was followed by persistent budget shortfalls.

Schmidt acknowledged that maintaining extra funding for mental health services and substance abuse treatment could prove difficult in the future. But he added that the state must change offenders’ behavior “so that those who hurt other people don’t do it again.”

“The answer is so plain,” Schmidt said. “It’s not easy to do, but it’s easy to know what has to be done.”

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