Daily Archives: Feb. 4, 2011

Skeptical senators press corrections secretary on abolishing Parole Board

TOPEKA — Kansas Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee today he sees no major problems with implementing a decision by Gov. Sam Brownback to abolish the state Parole Board and replace it with an in-house panel of corrections officials.

But Roberts — appointed to his job less than a month ago — faced skeptical questioning from some of the senators over whether the department could avoid conflict of interest if its employees serve as jailer, prosecutor and judge on parole decisions.

At issue is an executive reorganization order issued by Brownback to abolish the Parole Board, a three-member group that decides whether current inmates should be released before serving their full sentences and whether ex-convicts accused of violating parole conditions should be sent back to prison.

The Senate previously rejected a bill that would have abolished the Parole Board.

But Brownback’s order presses the issue. It will automatically become law on July 1 unless the House or Senate passes a resolution to stop it.

Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park and chairman of the committee, said abolishing the Parole Board would be “a significant change” in the state justice system and pressed Roberts on the possibility of conflict of interest.

Owens likened it to when he served as general counsel for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, and panels initially deciding cases and ruling on appeals had overlapping membership and answered to the same management.

“Is this going to be perceived as just being an incestuous kind of thing in the department?” he said.

Owens also questioned Roberts directly on what he — a cabinet secretary serving at the pleasure of the governor — would do if the governor’s chief of staff called and told him to “cut some people loose” to clear prison bed space.

“The first thing I would do is have a discussion with the chief of staff,” Roberts replied.

He said he didn’t think that would happen. He said his overriding priority is public safety and vowed to keep parole decisions separate from considerations over the department’s budgeting and beds.

Under Brownback’s order, the Parole Board will be replaced with a “Prisoner Review Board” made up of Corrections staff members. Roberts said he is in the process of selecting that group from upper echelons of department management.

“Any process is only as good as the people you have in place,” Roberts said.

He also said the board would generally have a free hand.

“I would not see myself being involved in these (parole) decisions on a routine basis,” he said.

Brownback’s budget estimates the switch would save slightly less than $500,000 a year, mainly the salary and benefits for the three current Parole Board members.

Sen. Duane Umbarger, R-Thayer, exacted a pledge from Roberts that the Corrections Department would take on the Parole Board’s work without seeking more money.

“Is your staff going to have time to do all this?” he asked.

“Yes sir, we will,” Roberts replied.

He said he plans to streamline the process by “automating some functions” and increasing use of video conferencing and electronic records.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the field of corrections,” said Roberts, who was promoted to secretary after serving as warden of the El Dorado Correctional Facility. “Doing more with less is something we’ve done for many years.”

After the hearing, Parole Board member Tom Sawyer, a former Wichita state representative, said he doubts shifting the work to the Corrections Department would actually save any money.

“Do they just have that much staff lying around with that kind of free time?” he said.

According to Roberts, there are about 1,150 inmates in custody whose sentences allow for possibility of parole.

Sawyer said there are about an additional 10,000 ex-convicts who have been paroled but could be brought in on alleged violations.

Because of time limitations, today’s hearing ended before opponents of Brownback’s order got a chance to testify.

Owens said he will schedule an additional session for that.

Kobach, Mah square off again at delayed hearing on voter ID

Kobach

Mah

TOPEKA — Rep. Ann Mah and Secretary of State Kris Kobach today continued their weather-delayed cage match over how much proof of identity Kansans will have to provide to register to vote and to cast their ballots.

In a House Elections Committee hearing, Mah, D-Topeka, pounded at the proposed voter-ID law that Kobach, a Republican, has introduced.

She says its provisions for proving citizenship are excessively cumbersome and would virtually shut down sidewalk-style registration drives by requiring new registrants to provide copies of their birth certificates and/or other documents.

Kobach and Mah, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee, had their back-and-forth debate shut down Monday when a woman fainted after standing for an extended time in the crowded hearing room. The hearing was supposed to continue Wednesday but was snowed out.

Both Mah and Kobach both took advantage of the delay to reload their arguments.

Responding to Mah’s last line of questioning from Monday, Kobach said he had contacted Georgia and confirmed that that state’s voter ID requirements — right now the strictest being enforced in the nation — had recently been cleared by the Justice Department.

As a southern state with a history of suppressing black voters, Georgia is required by federal law to obtain clearance for any changes in its election law.

Mah said she had also taken advantage of the weather-related downtime to contact Georgia and found its requirements for proving citizenship to be much more convenient for voters than the system Kobach proposes.

She said she discovered that all Georgia required for registration was that potential voters write their drivers’ license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the registration form. She said she didn’t have a problem with that.

But she said the Georgia election official she spoke with was surprised to learn that Kansas was considering a bill requiring people to send in copies of citizenship documents with their registration forms.

“You know what she said? ‘You’re kidding,’” Mah said. “I said I wish I was.”

Kobach replied that Georgia could rely on that system because it had already implemented requirements that drivers provide citizenship proof to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

He said Kansas is phasing that it and should have scanned copies of everyone’s birth certificates in DMV records in about seven years, at which time the system could be changed to not require people to provide actual documents as they register.

“Is it identical to Georgia, no,” Kobach said. “Does it use the same principles? Yes.”

Mah later said she had checked with the state DMV and found it had no plan to collect everyone’s birth certificates. Instead, she said, the agency is collecting birth certificates of those seeking a drivers license for the first time.

House Democrats know that they cannot stop the voter ID bill, as they did when they had the governor’s office and 49 of the 125 representatives, compared with their current 33.

Now, their focus has shifted to trying to mold the legislation to delete requirements that they see as the most inconvenient for voters and the most likely to depress turnout.

Mah said she supports the concept of proof of ID and citizenship to vote.

“I think what I have a problem with is that this (proposed) law is the worst way to go about it I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Kobach, however, said he checked DMV records and found there are already more drivers’ licenses and non-driver ID’s in circulation than there are estimated eligible voters.

“It appears we don’t have any unlicensed people walking around Kansas, that they know of,” he said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday, when opponents of the bill — including the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the National Organization for Women — will give their testimony.