- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Lawyers, a prison rehabilitation organization and faith communities launched a coalition Monday that will push for changes to the Kansas criminal justice system.

Kansans for Smart Justice announced a series of measures, including reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, during a Statehouse news conference. The American Civil Liberties Union is among the 13 organizations that are part of the coalition.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the coalition will highlight state trends including a rise in incarceration despite the falling crime rate. He said at the news conference that the Kansas prison population quadrupled from 1978 to 2014.

“The criminal justice system in Kansas is broken,” Kubic said. “Too many people are being sent to prison for too long, for too trivial of reasons, costing us … and doing too great of a harm to communities in the process.”

He added that blacks and Hispanics in Kansas are incarcerated at twice the rate of the national average.

Kubic pointed out legislation that passed both the state House and Senate that would reduce penalties for marijuana. Lawmakers are still trying to come to an agreement on the measure.

Benet Magnuson, executive director of the civil rights organization Kansas Appleseed, said the state Senate’s recent vote to overhaul the juvenile justice system was a step in the right direction. Under the measure that passed 38-2, youths who violate probation will be referred to programs such as anger management that allow them to stay in homes with their families.

Magnuson said the adult system also would benefit from placing low-risk offenders in community-based rehabilitation programs instead of jails. A 2012 Council of State Governments Justice Center report found that the recidivism rate in Kansas dropped by 15 percent through the introduction of rehabilitative services.

“We cannot build our way out of this problem,” Magnuson said, urging Kansas lawmakers not to spend money on building more prisons. “If you build it, they will fill it.”

SuEllen Fried, founder of Reaching Out From Within, an organization that promotes prison rehabilitation programs, echoed the need to create bipartisan legislation that reduces incarceration and supports re-entry of ex-offenders into society. She added that the recidivism rate could be lowered if job and housing applications didn’t require applicants to list their criminal records.

“If we do all these things together, we can save souls and save money,” Fried said.

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