Roger Werholtz was appointed Acting Secretary of Corrections by Gov. Bill Graves on Sept. 30, 2002, and was appointed Secretary of Corrections by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Jan. 13, 2003. He served as Deputy Secretary of Corrections since 1987 and has supervised all three divisions of the Kansas Department of Corrections: Community and Field Services; Programs and Staff Development; and Facilities Management. He also has experience in community mental health, child protective services and substance abuse treatment and prevention, and has served as a graduate level instructor in the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare. He talked about his work with the Center for Court Innovation's Emily Gold.
What were the challenges that you faced when you became Kansas’s Secretary of Corrections in 2002?
We were facing a period of fairly high projected growth in the prison population, driven in large part by revocations of probationers and parolees. Over half of released prisoners were returning to prison within five years. Based on our projections, it looked like the state would need to build about 2,000 new prison beds for our system over the next ten years, which would have cost about $500 million to construct and operate. That’s a huge expense in a state like Kansas.
What was your strategy for addressing some of these problems?
I’ve always had an interest in programming that focuses on trying to change offender behavior as opposed to just responding to it. We looked at the “what works” literature and made a conscious decision to apply these principles as broadly as we could within the department, starting with a pilot reentry program in Topeka. It showed some promising results, so I was able to convince the legislature to commit four million dollars to see if we could replicate our results. They invested not just money but political capital in trying to put this in place.
How were you able to convince the legislature to support your reform efforts?
We’re very fortunate that it didn’t turn into a partisan political issue. We had support from across the political spectrum. Both Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Sam Brownback both said, “This is what we need to do.” They were able to find their own particular reasons for wanting reform to happen. For Senator Brownback, his support came out of his personal religious convictions. Governor Sebelius has been an advocate for treatment-based approaches as far back as the 1980s. Then of course there was the fiscal reality. We couldn’t afford the cost of giving up – it would have been just too expensive.
How would you describe the Kansas approach to corrections?
We used our pilot reentry program to inform how we ask all our parole officers to go about supervising parolees. We also started talking to our corrections counselors about how to approach the management of offenders while they’re in facility. A lot of what we do involves training staff on case management strategies, motivational interviewing skills and the use of some common risk assessment instruments with the goal of focusing our attention on higher risk offenders. All of our job descriptions have been re-written to reflect these new priorities, and in interviewing staff for promotions, we require knowledge of evidence-based practices.
What about the issue of parole revocations?
One of the things we had to reinforce for parole officers is that while there needed to be a response to every technical violation like failing a drug test, it didn’t always have to be revocation. In fact, returning a parolee to prison may be one of the least effective decisions a parole officer could make. When revocation requests were made, we had the supervisor of the parole officer and the regional parole director start asking parole officers questions like, “Have you tried any alternatives?” Pretty soon staff understood how important it was to try and keep someone in the community safely. Now we approve more than 90 percent of revocation requests from staff, because they are thinking through all of the questions that we used to ask of them
What results have you achieved?
We’ve seen a 48 percent reduction in monthly revocation rates and a 31 percent reduction in absconder rates. I think the piece of information that really sold people is the decline in felony convictions among parolees. In the late 1990s, we were averaging 835 felony convictions for each annual cohort of parolees. That number dropped to 493 in the years between 2003 and 2006, which reassured people that we weren’t simply ignoring criminal behavior. The fiscal impact is enormous. In the last legislative session, we were able to project that we could go as far as ten years without adding any new prison beds.
Did you face any internal opposition and how did you address it?
This was a huge change for a lot of staff. I think most of our staff take personal responsibility for their work. They want to be confident that what we ask them to do is appropriate and that we will support them when they carry out what we request of them. Some believed that we were putting the public at risk, and we had to talk at length with them, with legislators, with reporters and editorial boards to make sure the stakeholders knew what we were trying to do and the criteria we were using to measure our performance. I think our results, and the positive attention that goes along with it, has helped put those concerns to rest. In some ways, the hardest thing we’ve asked parole officers to do is take on more discretion than they were used to having six or seven years ago. Instead of the old system of using a formula to decide what to do, we’re asking them to craft a response that’s tailored to an individual offender, taking into consideration a number of factors. That’s something that parole officers still struggle with. But I think we’ve reached a tipping point.
Are you prepared to deal with a terrible incident where a parolee goes out and hurts someone, which has killed reform efforts in other states?
I think it’s possible to survive something like that if you’ve laid a foundation. We’ve been delivering a consistent message for the last five years that we should be judged by our overall recidivism rate, not by any individual case. The truth is that high profile incidents occur no matter what the revocation rate is – if you match rates up with notorious cases from the last 15 years, you can see that there’s no relationship. We’ve also worked very actively with victim advocacy groups to get their support. The good news is that we’ve learned that it’s ok to admit if something we’re doing isn’t working. We’re finding out that the legislature has allowed us to experiment, and if something doesn’t come up to expectations, we have an opportunity to change it.