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Kansas courts to create drug abuse treatment programs for low level drug offenders

ALLEN COUNTY, Kan. – Last month, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly signed House Bill 2026, creating a drug abuse treatment program in the state. At the time, the Governor called it a “significant step towards criminal justice reform in Kansas.”

The bill creates drug abuse treatment programs for people on diversion — meaning that instead of going through a criminal trial, they would go through a drug abuse treatment program, and the charges would be dropped upon successful completion. If an offender doesn’t complete the program, they again face the felony conviction.

According to the bill text, programs would be open to offenders facing a level five felony conviction (the lowest level felony in the state), who don’t already have a felony drug conviction on their record. Offenders would also have to go through a drug assessment, which includes an evaluation by a mental health professional, and a risk needs assessment by the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

Programs across the state would be administered by county and district attorneys, as they would write the guidelines for the program within their county/judicial district.

Allen County Attorney and District Attorney for the 31st Judicial District Jerry Hathaway says they have put offenders through diversion programs in the past, but they never were quite like this.

“This is a whole new ball game… between risk needs assessments and mental health evaluations with regard to what each individual person may need in terms of treatment. We have those things in place in general. I think it’s just gonna be a matter of time really for us to sit down and say, ‘How are we gonna implement this new law within our diversion program?’” explains Hathaway.

The 31st Judicial District, which includes Allen, Neosho, Wilson and Woodson Counties, has also had a drug court program since 2013. While the drug court program is much different from the new law, Hathaway says they’ve seen how much impact treatment can have on drug addicts.

“I would say it’s been a success. We’ve had a number of graduates. People with addictions to methamphetamines and other drugs can benefit from treatment. I think it (the new law) gives us another tool to use,” says Hathaway. “(But,) because we have drug court, we don’t do a huge amount of level five drug felony diversions. Many times we have them go ahead and plead to that and put them in drug court. I’m not saying we haven’t done these types of diversions if the situation warrants it, but we do a small amount here. So, overall, I’m not sure how much this law will change how we do things. But the main part of that is because we do have a wonderful drug court here that has had great success.”

Allen County Sheriff Bryan Murphy says, in his opinion, any additional tools they can use to help residents is a plus.

“If I think back in my career there’s been people that I’ve arrested in the past for DUI’s or something and that’s the only interaction we’ve had. They’ve realized their mistake and they’ve corrected that. And so, to have based on narcotics to me it’s just a win win,” says Murphy. “Cause now if we can head that off with that first initial arrest and help them steer clear of a future of going down that path and causing more issues… family issues, personal issues…  I think it’ll work. Having been on the streets, I think there were people that could have benefited from something this simple.”

But — the implementation will be the hardest thing. Hathaway explains that they have a lot of the resources needed to get it started already since there’s a lot of overlap with drug court. The one resource they don’t have is the money that will be required.

“We have a lot of indigent defendants. And they can come up with the diversion fee for the diversion, but if they need to go to treatment, somebody’s gonna have to pay for that. And I’ll be the first to say I’m not sure who that entity is going to be,” says Hathaway. “It would be easy to say the defendants themselves can pay for their treatment… well, the reality, as I think we all know, is most people can’t afford to pay for that type of thing. So that’s gonna be the biggest hurdle I think in implementing this new law.”

The new law will take effect on July 1st, 2021.

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