Derek Schmidt: Smart criminal justice reform will benefit all Kansans
During the Civil War, President Lincoln once compassionately referred to Southerners as fellow human beings whose actions were wrong. A woman berated Lincoln for not condemning the rebels as irredeemable enemies to be destroyed. Lincoln replied, “Why madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
The same simple wisdom should guide Kansas as our state further reforms its criminal justice system. I believe there is irredeemable evil in the world that sometimes results in one human being’s horrific crimes against another. As attorney general, I have seen it. And I stand unwavering in the belief that justice and public safety require the most serious violent criminals be removed from society through incarceration for long periods of time and, sometimes, permanently.
But I also have seen many other offenders whose conduct was wrong but who as human beings are not evil — they are broken. Of course, that does not excuse their crimes. But it does suggest how smart criminal justice reform can benefit public safety, victims, communities, taxpayers and offenders alike.
In my view, the goal of meaningful criminal justice reform should be to make our state safer — less crime, fewer victims. Other benefits, such as less-crowded prisons and long-term savings for taxpayers, are welcome byproducts. But the purpose of the criminal justice system is to bring justice and public safety.
Making our communities safer requires renewed focus on changing the behavior of those who misbehave because they are broken. To paraphrase Lincoln, criminal justice reform should seek to destroy criminals by making them law-abiding citizens.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. Any success is likely to be measured at the margins because it involves the vagaries of human behavior.
The new Report of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission makes more than 70 recommendations. Some are ready for action, others provocative ideas worth further consideration. I agree with some, disagree with some, and remain open to persuasion on others.
I am hopeful the 2021 Legislature will take action. In my view, some of the most powerful recommendations that can change behavior and make our communities safer include:
Substance-abuse treatment. Breaking the cycle of addiction that fuels criminal misbehavior is key to making communities safer. A year ago, the Commission recommended construction of two new drug-treatment prisons to house the offenders most likely to change behavior if they break their addiction. The Legislature funded a prototype but then COVID-19 wrecked the state budget. I’m hopeful the Legislature and Governor together will recommit to this much-needed project and also will consider other recommendations to improve substance-abuse treatment throughout our criminal justice system.
Mental health. The need for mental health services far outstrips the services available. A task force made broad recommendations for improvement, and the Commission has endorsed them. They won’t be cheap — but neither is leaving mental illness untreated among offenders.
Re-entry. Strong reentry programs after prison reduce crime. Simply walking out the prison door without a job, without housing, without any support structure to provide guidance and accountability, and returning to a broken social situation that contributed to criminal misconduct in the first place does not promote success. Recommendations include easing reinstatement of driver’s licenses so released offenders can drive to work, reviewing occupational licensing laws, and supporting housing and other life necessities that promote stability after prison.
For decades, Kansas has been a leader in criminal justice reform that gets tough on crime by being smart about criminals. In 2021, our state has an opportunity to continue that strong leadership.
Derek Schmidt is the 44th attorney general of Kansas.