Kansas Legislators Consider "Treatment Not Jail" Bill 3/7/03

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With no room at the jailhouse and no money in the treasury, Kansas is the latest state to consider alternatives to prison sentences for some drug offenders. SB123, introduced on February 26, calls for the mandatory treatment of first-time drug possessors in lieu of prison sentences. The bill has already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed soon for debate on the Senate floor.

The bill has a chance, Senate President Dave Kerr (R-Hutchinson) told the Kansas City Star. "If people really look at the facts, we're facing either more prisons or dealing with groups differently," Kerr said.

Indeed, Kansas prisons are currently at 98% of capacity, and the number of drug offenders imprisoned for possession last year (472) slightly exceeds the number of new beds (432) the state estimates would be required to house them next year. The following year, barring changes, the Kansas Department of Corrections estimates that it will need an additional 508 beds for drug possession offenders.

Passage of SB123 would relieve some of the pressure. Under its provisions, first-time drug possession offenders now sent to prison would instead go to certified drug treatment programs, including outpatient, community-based programs. Also, those currently doing time for drug possession would be released from prison into treatment programs, provided they met Corrections Department security criteria. Persons with more than one drug possession charge or those imprisoned for selling or manufacturing drugs would not be eligible, nor would those with violent felonies.

The bill was crafted by the Kansas Sentencing Commission. "I think people are looking at ways to deal with limited resources and declining treatment programs," said Barbara Tombs, executive director of the commission.

But despite fiscal crisis, law-and-order politics runs deep in Kansas. Senator David Adkins (D-Leawood), who was attacked as "soft on crime" for earlier votes when he ran for Attorney General last year, told the Star voting for the bill could be the kiss of death. "I would recommend anyone who wants to run for attorney general any time in their lifetime not vote for that bill, because it would be used in nefarious ways to bludgeon them to death politically."

And the prohibitionists are already raising the hue and cry. "This is going to make us the most attractive state for drug possession," warned Kansas Bureau of Investigation attorney Kyle Smith. "We'll be the new Amsterdam."

If that remark seems a bit over the top, consider what Smith told the Judiciary Committee when he addressed the bill as representative of the Kansas Peace Officers Association: "It merely dumps hundreds of drug abusers and traffickers out of the prisons and into our local communities... It does this by simply decriminalizing all kinds of drug possession and makes it retroactive."

As noted above, the bill does not apply to persons convicted of drug sales, nor does it decriminalize drug possession in Kansas. Still, given the tenor of the debate, Kansas could have a ways to go before it joins the at least 12 other states that have moved since 2001 to reduce drug prison sentences.

Visit http://www.kslegislature.org/bills/2004/123.pdf to view the bill online.

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