TOPEKA — State. Rep. Gail Finney told the state’s bipartisan criminal justice reform panel Monday that perhaps half of 213,000 people with suspended licenses in Kansas were violating the prohibition against driving.
Finney, a Wichita Democrat on the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission, said the suspension of licenses and unreasonable fees assessed to people dealing with loss of their privileges left Kansans with a difficult choice. She said the system compelled individuals to measure the risk of getting caught driving without a license against the pressure to maintain employment or care for family members.
“I believe over 50 percent of the people are driving on suspended driver’s licenses because they have to provide for their families,” Finney said. “The driver’s license is one of the major barriers to offenders — not just offenders, but citizens — to be able to get jobs, sustain a job.”
The vehicle division at the Kansas Department of Revenue can suspend a driver’s license for reasons that include failure to provide proof of insurance, driving under the influence or unpaid fines.
The 2019 Legislature authorized the justice commission to make recommendations about sentencing, diversion programs, specialty courts, alternative correctional facilities, offender supervision and criminal justice data management. State law requires the commission to submit an interim report by Dec. 1 and the final report is to be filed by December 2020.
Members have so far focused on proportionality of sentencing, opportunities to network IT systems, enhanced mental health and drug treatment and ways to improve reintegration of offenders into public society.
Packing more people into prison space operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections would prove costly, because the male and female populations in existing state facilities have reached capacity. To temporarily alleviate the problem, Kansas began transferring 360 inmates to a private prison in Eloy, Ariz. A total of 600 could be sent under terms of the one-year contract with CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tenn.
“Sending Kansas inmates to another state is an option we wish we could avoid,” said Jeff Zmuda, secretary at the state Department of Corrections. “Entering into this contract to accommodate growth in the prison population is the best option available at this time for the safety of our staff and inmates.”
Marc Bennett, chairman of the justice commission and the district attorney in Sedgwick County, said the members also were exploring opportunities for data sharing among law enforcement agencies, prosecutor offices and other court system personnel.
The commission will likely need to ask the Legislature in January to finance a statewide study to get a handle of the range of information management systems relied upon by cities and county governments, he said.
“The IT departments of those respective institutions are stretched very thin, meaning they don’t have a lot of resources to update,” Bennett said.
Todd Ackerman, police chief in Marysville and a member of the commission, said the attorney general’s office was interested in crafting a plan for creating special prisons for people consumed by addiction and in the corrections system. He expects Attorney General Derek Schmidt to outline a strategy for redirecting existing building space, perhaps at a state hospital, to house inmates requiring intensive therapy.