Whatever the reason, it’s profoundly heartening to hear Attorney General Derek Schmidt say that Kansas is on the cusp of expanding mental health treatment for those in the justice system.
“It sure looks to me like, under the banner of criminal justice reform, the stars are aligning for really doing something meaningful in the Kansas criminal justice system,” he told The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter. “Across the philosophical spectrum, the partisan spectrum, everybody is saying we’ve got to do something.”
Indeed, the bipartisan interest seems to be there, from the Republicans who dominate the Legislature to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Mental health treatment for those in the system has come to the fore because it appears to be a solid way to prevent reoffending without making proponents appear “soft on crime.”
Traces of that can be seen in Carpenter’s interview with Schmidt. The attorney general somewhat confusingly said that “The right measure of criminal justice reform ... is: Does it produce fewer victims of crime over time?”
To our minds, the right measure of criminal justice reform is whether a system built to punish rather than rehabilitate can be reshaped to serve modern needs. Preventing reoffending is important, yes, but that should follow if we allow those in the system to receive proper treatment and employment opportunities, as well as addressing the causes of deep inequity that lurk below much of modern life.
But perhaps these are distinctions without a difference. If all sides are able to agree on solid measures that meet our needs as a state, we should move forward. Bipartisanship and cooperation could be scarce commodities this election year, so action on such an important issue would show that our elected leadership still works.
Real change will take real money. According to Carpenter, “In advance of the 2020 legislative session in January, the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission recommended construction of a $20 million substance abuse treatment facility and allocation of $3.5 million to renovate prison space to serve 250 inmates with substance abuse problems. In addition, the commission urged expenditure of $9 million to renovate a prison facility for use as a 250-bed geriatric care facility.”
That’s a real investment, and it will truly take a solid majority of legislators working together to make it happen. But reducing prison populations and recidivism, as well as simple matters of justice, make the issue pressing.
Indeed, for all the talk of our criminal justice system, the real question is whether our political system can still function. Let’s hope it does.