Kansas community corrections programs decry underfunding, seek $11.5 million increase

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TOPEKA — The network of community corrections organizations in Kansas proposed an $11.5 million budget increase in the upcoming fiscal year and relaxation of regulations on use of state funding to allow for hiring of about 50 more officers to supervise felony offenders.

Randy Regehr, president of the Kansas Community Corrections Association and director of Reno County Community Corrections, said funding in the past eight years failed to keep up with inflation and fueled turnover of experienced staff changing jobs to boost income.

Loss of skilled community corrections workers to build meaningful relationships with offenders leads to higher recidivism and places communities at greater risk, he told state legislators on Monday.

“This loss of knowledge and experience has cut deep in agencies. Result of this turnover is people we supervise aren’t receiving the service and assistance they need,” Regehr said. “The people we supervise are resistive to change. They’re so entrenched in their criminal lifestyles they don’t even think they’re capable of change. For many of them, all they have are criminal or addicted family or friends. The idea of change seems impossible.”

In terms of a budget request to the 2023 Legislature, he said $6 million could be earmarked for operational costs, $4.5 million could be used to add the 50 officers to reduce caseloads and $1 million could be appropriated to mental health services. About half of the people assigned to Kansas’ community corrections programs have mental health challenges and have experienced addiction challenges.

“Reducing caseloads allows officers more time to spend with each person they supervise,” Regehr said. “This is more time to work on behavior changes, more time to ensure compliance with court orders and more time to ensure community safety.”

In addition, Regehr said the community corrections association requested greater budget flexibility and the option of carrying unspent funding to the next fiscal year.

In the 2022 session, the Legislature approved $11.8 million aimed at making wages of community corrections officers more competitive. The coalition of community corrections agencies had sought a $14.3 million hike in funding.

An earmark in that budget allowing community corrections agencies to surge salaries helped retain staff, Regehr said. However, some counties couldn’t use their full allotment due to a prohibition on expanding the officer workforce. For example, Johnson County returned to the Kansas Department of Corrections about $370,000 because its wage for community corrections officers was already competitive and the need in the county was for additional officers.

“As you can imagine, staff were deflated. They had been excited about and celebrated the increase in funding only to be told they weren’t getting a raise and the agency couldn’t use the money,” Regehr said.

The Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee is expected to draft budget and policy recommendations Wednesday for presentation to the full House and Senate. The 2023 Legislature convenes Jan. 9.

Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican, said the Legislature ought to weigh the cost of community corrections programs in the context of saving taxpayers money in the long run by curtailing the number of people who returned to jail or prison. He said the contributions of community corrections staff were pivotal to weaning people away from criminal behavior.

Advocates of new spending on community corrections need to present the Legislature statistical evidence the investments improved public safety and were beneficial to felony offenders, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Republican from Louisburg who chairs the interim corrections committee.

The state’s mental health appropriation to community corrections had been set at $3 million annually since created in 2014. Regehr’s  request was for a $1 million boost in that line item. The Legislature needed to know whether a $4 million budget would meet the need and, if not, what actual demand for resources would be, Baumgardner said.

“As legislators,” she said, “we need to know what it’s going to cost. We need to have a better, more accurate picture.”

Regehr said he appreciated the committee’s enthusiasm for new state investment in community corrections and reiterated bleak budgets in previous years left the county agencies with little wiggle room in their budgets.

“We’re asking ourselves, do I stop or reduce drug testing?” he said. “Do I decrease or eliminate services to help clients be successful? Or, do I have to cut a staff position so I can afford rent?”

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: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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