Incarcerating people for drug offenses is a major cause of the growing prison population.
A major cause of the exploding size of the nation's prison population is ever-harsher punishment for drug offenses, including simple, non-violent possession. Between 1993 and 2009, drug offenses were the main driver of new admissions into state and federal prisons - drug offenses accounted for nearly a third of prison admission during that period, while violent crime accounted for just one-quarter of admissions.
Kansas has followed this national trend. Drug offenses are by far the biggest contributor to admissions into Kansas prisons, consistently making up 30 percent of admissions. The second most common offense resulting in incarceration, typically theft or burglary, rarely accounts for more than 10 percent of admissions.
The sheer number of drug-related prison admissions means that any effective response to the growing prison population will require significant reform in how our state punishes drug offenses.
Current Kansas sentences for drug offenses harm our communities.
Sentences for drug offenses in Kansas are unduly harsh. The state adopted a forward-thinking drug policy in 2003, requiring mandatory drug treatment rather than prison for first-time drug offenders. More recent changes to state sentencing guidelines mean that subsequent offenses carry outrageously long prison sentences. As a result, Kansas sentencing guidelines are now more severe than those in the federal system.
Sentencing reform can reduce prison admissions by 6%
and cut government spending by $2.7 million.
Many of those who go to prison for drug offenses are in desperate need of treatment for substance abuse disorders or in need of mental healthcare. Locking these individuals behind bars does nothing to make Kansas communities safer or stronger.
In other cases, the harsh sentences imposed for non-violent drug offenses undermine family stability. Parents who are incarcerated are unable to care for their children, struggle to do so even when they return, and the children involved suffer long-term harms. One in sixteen Kansas children has endured the traumatic experience of having a parent incarcerated.
Drug offenses that result in prison time are felonies. Felony convictions have long-term consequences. Long after a prison sentence is completed, the conviction can result in a lifetime of exclusion from employment, housing, services, or even getting a driver's license. These conditions make it difficult for individuals to resume a normal life. When supports do not exist for these individuals, entire communities suffer.
Harsh sentences from simple, non-violent drug possession harm everyone. They carry enormous financial costs, but do nothing to make communities safer—those going to prison are non-violent and pose little threat to others.
Reforming sentences for drug offenses is a common-sense solution.
Kansas has defelonized first and second time marijuana possession but lags behind other states in embracing further reform. Sixteen jurisdictions—including South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming, have defelonized all or most drug offenses. Kansas should follow suit and reduce sentences for simple, non-violent drug possession by defelonizing those offenses. By converting these drug offenses into misdemeanors, hundreds of Kansans will be able to receive needed treatment and healthcare instead of prison—while still being held accountable for the crime.
Sentencing reform will result in lower costs for taxpayers and stronger communities.
Defelonization would have immediate, significant benefits for Kansas. This simple reform could result in a 6 percent decrease in prison admissions during the first year, cutting government spending on prisons by $2.7 million. In future years, the benefit of decreased prison admissions and prison spending would increase because currently, people are sentenced to much harsher prison terms if they have prior felony convictions.
By keeping families together, sparing individuals the lifetime barriers to success carried by a felony conviction, and ensuring treatment and services for those who need it, Kansas communities would be stronger, safer, and healthier.