KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Lewis was babbling.
"I can see things. … There are signs out there coming from The Beast." One of his arms moved randomly above the black bandanna around his head, as if to swipe away cobwebs.
The man rocking in his seat before parole officer Chris Jorgensen in the drab, tiny Department of Corrections office in Kansas City, Kan., was one of 6,000 released convicts whom the state budget is doing less to help.
Treatment and support services for Lewis, who did time on a theft charge, and other inmates re-entering society cost $12.6 million two years ago. That was when mental health care, job training and community residential programs for people on parole helped make Kansas a national model for success.
Now the model has been dismantled. For the fiscal year beginning July, the corrections department will get about $5.3 million to fund those programs under Gov. Mark Parkinson’s budget recommendations.
To the taxpayer and government officials desperately trying to balance the state’s books, the short-term savings are hard to resist.
But experts know that a convict ill-prepared for “re-entry” — especially in this job market — may mean only rising crime in the coming years.
Should Lewis violate his parole and be taken off the street, it will cost about $25,000 each year to incarcerate him.
With burgeoning state budget crises affecting life as Kansans and Missourians know it, officer Jorgensen saw a more immediate crisis sitting in front of his desk.
“What is it you need, Lewis?” he said calmly, sensing a meltdown. “Tell me what you need. Do you feel the medicine is helping you?”
“I feel I need a witness, like it says in the Bible. … I believe I’m the Christ of all people.”
Jorgensen heard nothing coherent. He made a note to drive his schizophrenic client back to the mental health center as soon as his case load allowed.
It was then that Lewis, who is living with relatives, made a comment so striking in its clarity, so truthful, it seemed to crackle down the hall: “I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
He broke into sobs and asked that his full name not appear in this story. The two hugged — a trembling, disheveled man and his parole officer — before the next parolee sat down.
A crown jewel fades
The Kansas method of preparing inmates for re-entering society was considered the crown jewel of correctional systems worldwide. Congress in 2008 established “Second Chance” grants to help other states create the kinds of programs launched in Kansas — for drug rehabilitation, education, family reintegration and transitional housing.
Recidivism rates — the percent of ex-convicts committing new crimes — had in 2007 plunged statewide to 2.2 percent, less than half the recidivism of the early part of the decade.
The number of parolees re-convicted for felonies fell 36 percent. The total prison population and new admissions also were on the decline, enabling the Department of Corrections to project that Kansas needn’t worry about expanding its prison capacity for 10 years.
The recession and consecutive budget blowouts have thrown that momentum into reverse.
“Just like that — the national model we created no longer exists,” said state Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who leads the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice. “We were written up in The Wall Street Journal. I was invited to the White House,” when then-President George W. Bush signed legislation directing $54 million in federal grants to help duplicate Kansas’ success around the country.
"The fact that our programs had gotten it right — and we had the data to prove it — didn’t keep us from destroying that model,” she said.
Now, her state must line up at the federal trough for Second Chance grants it once didn’t need.
While other states are stepping up prisoner releases to meet budget, officials say Kansas sentencing laws prevent them from springing inmates at will.
It is too early to know how program cuts, both inside and outside prison walls, may affect future recidivism rates, or even overall public safety, corrections officials say. But they already face a new penal landscape, as about $25 million has been chopped from the corrections budget since 2008.
Last year, four minimum-security units were shut down, many inmates were routed to tighter quarters, and treatment and education programs lost more than half their funding.
“For Joe, the parolee,” said state Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz, “it means no longer having access to substance-abuse treatment through the Department of Corrections. Joe is going to be lining up and competing for the same treatment slots as any law-abiding Kansan needing the help” but unable to afford it.
“It’s going to be harder for him, harder for everybody, to get that treatment slot.”
Gone from most Kansas communities are the structured group-living arrangements that provided offenders a bed, counseling and supervision while they sought full-time work or fought off addictions.
The department last year discontinued such residential programs in Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. A treatment program for sex offenders at the Norton Correctional Facility ended.
In Jorgensen’s office, the parolees said they wanted to make it on the outside.
“It’s easy to get back in — to just lie down in your cell and let the state take care of you,” said Mike Buie, paroled in 2008 after a five-year stint for robbery and attempted battery. “What’s hard is to make it out here. …
“I understand if people do feel safe in their homes, safe going shopping, with criminals locked away. But to really feel safe, you’re going to have to focus on the people getting out.”
Buie has spent 18 of his 44 years behind bars. For him, being out and avoiding trouble for the last two is an achievement. But state budget cuts have limited his eligibility for MediKan insurance benefits to 18 months, and the medication Buie needs to control his bipolar disorder is running out.
“Leaves me high and dry” until he can collect disability benefits next year, Buie said: “I’m waiting for the grass to finish growing so I can mow some neighbors’ lawns.”
Frederick Releford sat down. He was sprung from the Lansing Correctional Facility in February, and already he is facing homelessness.
The halfway house where Releford is sleeping and getting help for alcoholism requires that he make a co-payment of $5 a day. But before Releford, 46, can land a driver’s license and steady work, he needs to track down his Arkansas birth certificate and Social Security card from relatives who are nowhere to be found.
Until last year, the Department of Corrections had a residential safety net for him — the Salvation Army Shield of Service House in Kansas City, Kan. Dropping it and other residential beds for parolees allowed the state to save $640,000.
Parole officer Jorgensen: “Frederick, if you get behind two, three months on your rent, and they discharge you for not paying, we’re back to square one, and you’re homeless.”
Releford, head down: “I don’t want to go that route.”
He wants to finish up his GED. He wants to volunteer for Metropolitan Lutheran Ministries. He wants to work in roofing or landscaping. But he knows hardly anybody in Kansas City, Kan., except the corrections staff.
“What are we going to do with Frederick?” Jorgensen asked himself after the parolee stepped back into hall.
A short time later, Valori Sanders bounded into the hall with a grin.
“I’ve got good news,” said Sanders, of the nonprofit Kansas Housing Resources Corp. “I just found a landlord willing to give us first dibs on two units! She was pretty tough, but we worked it out.”
This is how the parole business makes do: By negotiating with private providers, tapping churches and publicly paid welfare options, by reworking agency contracts, corrections officials will try to find a way.
“At the end of the day,” said Jorgensen, “we’re going to find the resources to help these people be successful.”
Each of the state’s 125 parole officers will do it juggling caseloads ranging from about 30 to 300 parolees.
“I don’t know many parole officers who make over $40,000 a year, and almost all are college graduates,” said Sean McCauley, a lawyer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 64 of parole officers. “They may start out hoping to help people, like a social worker, but eventually they feel like they’re emptying an ocean with a thimble.”
In Topeka, lawmakers of both parties widely agree that corrections and parole services need healthy funding — it reduces crime and cuts penal costs in the long run.
Still, McCauley said the state has not hiked parole officers’ wages in 10 years, save for a couple of cost-of-living adjustments.
Jorgensen, 31, chucked plans of being a criminologist for the threadbare office in which he works: green file folders stacked on the floor, dull green carpet and dull green walls, no window, black-metal desk and black file cabinets — a 1970s flashback.
A few say thanks when their parole is done. But normally they just disappear into society, where no news is good news.
“In our world,” he said, “if we don’t hear from or see these people again? Then they’re probably doing great.”