How Kansans can address racial equity in their criminal justice system (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka USD 501, and Shannon Portillo, associate dean and professor at the University of Kansas, served as co-chairs of the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice; David Jordan, president and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, chaired the subcommittee on health care.

In the summer of 2020, amidst national calls for racial justice and criminal justice reform, Gov. Laura Kelly established the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice.

She brought together 15 Kansans with expertise in law enforcement, education, health advocacy, local and state government, policy, philanthropy, and community organizing.

Given the historic need to review justice-related issues in Kansas, the commission started its work by examining law enforcement and the criminal legal system to identify opportunities to address inequities in Kansas’ system. We also sought to understand how to address systemic issues that affect education attainment, economic opportunity and health. The commission met every other week, hosted learning sessions with relevant professional associations and experts, and held community listening sessions.

The commission issued its first of three reports in December 2020. These recommendations addressing criminal justice aim to prevent disproportionate contact with law enforcement for communities of color and decrease inequities in justice outcomes.

Some recommendations related to law enforcement hiring and training were included in Senate Bill 247, which was introduced in 2021 in Senate Judiciary. This includes prohibiting fired officers from being hired at different law enforcement agencies; mandating review of records during the hiring process; requiring psychological testing of officers be performed by a licensed professional before certification (current standards require psychological tests before certification, but not by an independent, licensed professional); and requiring that officers have completed KLETC training before they are issued a firearm for use in the line of duty. We must engage with our legislators and advocate for this legislation.

Kansas law is more restrictive than military eligibility requirements, prohibiting law enforcement agencies from hiring noncitizens with legal status as officers. Aligning law enforcement eligibility with military eligibility would support hiring goals for agencies and engage immigrant populations to better reflect Kansas’ population.

Law enforcement and leaders agree that access to behavioral health care is a criminal justice issue. It’s estimated that nationally 44% of jail inmates and 37% of prisoners have a mental illness, compared with 18% of the general population. Many law enforcement encounters are the result of substance use or mental health issues, and they cause county jails and prisons to become de facto behavioral health service providers. Increasing access to early intervention options by expanding Medicaid in Kansas would improve policing outcomes and reduce state general fund spending on law enforcement and behavioral health.

Financing mobile crisis response models would provide crucial support to law enforcement in responding to behavioral health calls. Mental health professionals who work alongside law enforcement officers, or respond to mental health calls on their own, can contribute to positive outcomes and promote treatment over incarceration for individuals experiencing mental health crises.

The Johnson County co-responder program boasts positive outcomes — the rate of hospitalization fell dramatically, and the percentage of police calls that ended up in jail fell slightly. Kansas and local communities should implement appropriate co-responder and mental health crisis programs where possible.

More than 85% of Kansans facing a felony charge rely on appointed counsel. We must do more to support the Kansas Board of Indigent Defense Services and expand public defender offices to our largest counties. BIDS recently voted to expand offices in Wyandotte and Douglas Counties. To better serve residents throughout Kansas, BIDS is asking the Legislature for increased funding to open these offices, increase public defenders’ pay throughout Kansas and provide better training for their attorneys. Data demonstrate supporting BIDS offices in Douglas and Wyandotte Counties will save money.

We will not rid the justice system of inequities immediately, so we must ensure Kansans know how to report racial and bias-based policing, and we must have systems that take these reports seriously. In 2011, racial and bias-based policing policies were updated in statute. The commission recommended that the Legislature review the policies to determine if they are serving their intended purpose. The Legislature should address the process for filing a complaint of racial or bias-based policing, what entity is most appropriate to manage the process, and the availability of data related to such complaints and responsive action taken.

There are more than 50 other recommendations in the Commission’s first report. A few recommendations are making their way into legislation, but we must continue to push for them at the statehouse, in local governments and in administrative agencies. For more recommendations to become reality, we urge you to let your legislators and local governmental bodies know that these issues matter and encourage them to act.

About this series

In June 2020, Gov. Laura Kelly signed Executive Order 20-48, forming the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. The Commission studied issues of racial equity and justice across systems in Kansas, focusing first on policing and law enforcement and then on economic systems, education, and health care. The Commission developed recommendations for state agencies, the Legislature, and local governments. Through the end of 2022, commissioners will dig deeper into the recommendations in a monthly series.

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, a longtime Kansas resident, has been a public-school educator for more than 28 years, with most of that time as superintendent. Dr. Anderson has been nationally recognized as one of Education Week’s 16 Leaders to Learn From. She has improved achievement and closed achievement gaps for students of poverty in rural, urban and suburban public-school districts. In 2016 she became the first African-American female superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, in Topeka, Kansas. In 2019, Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Dr. Anderson to the Postsecondary Technical Authority as part of the Board of Regents, and in 2020 Gov. Kelly also appointed Dr. Anderson to co-chair the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice.

Shannon Portillo, Ph.D., serves as associate dean of academic affairs for the University of Kansas Edwards Campus and the School of Professional Studies and as a professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Portillo’s scholarship explores how formal policies and rules and informal social norms shape the work of public organizations. With community service is core value, Dr. Portillo served as co-chair of Governor Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice and serves as a commissioner for the Douglas County Board of County Commissioners.

David Jordan is the President of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, a health philanthropy focused on improving the health of Kansans. Before joining the Health Fund, David served as the executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, a coalition of more than 100 organizations working to improve access to health care in Kansas. He has more than 20 years of experience leading state and national efforts focused on changing policy to improve health and reduce disparities.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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