State legislatures across the country use their fiscal and policy-making leverage to conduct oversight on state prison operations. Unlike the rules governing other areas of state government, state corrections law often grants prison officials a significant degree of discretion to decide what happens and what is funded inside prison walls. To keep track of these highly variable operations, state legislatures have adopted a number of practices, including requiring agency reports, forming joint legislative committees to conduct oversight, and establishing expert commissions to gather and review data about prison performance.
Some legislative committees implement recommendations developed by an appointed commission of professionals, while others operate independently as a committee or member office. This blog explores the joint legislative committees on prison operations in Colorado and Kansas.
This table reflects the information available on the committee or commission websites or hearing recordings on YouTube from the state legislature.
- Legislative Oversight Committee Concerning Colorado Jail Standards
- Colorado Jail Standards Commission
- Kansas Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight
Colorado: Colorado’s commission appears to be stocked with experts. The commission’s adopted topics and the corresponding deadline for recommendations appears to be an effective planning framework. The commission releases recommendations on topics such as jail staffing, security, and visitation every three months. The last crop of commission recommendations is scheduled for August 2023 followed by the full committee report in November. These topics could inspire other state legislatures to pursue investigations in their own state, or even adopt Colorado’s ambitious timeline approach for topics and recommendation delivery. The commission’s operating procedures are listed below.
Kansas: The committee heard testimony from citizens and experts representing interest groups. The committee record also suggests that the committee heard from a wide range of viewpoints. For example, reproduced below is an excerpt from the written testimony from a Kansas resident in which he shares concerns about prison operations after working as a corrections officer for 20 years. Personal letters like this are in included in the record along with issue statements from interest groups.
Based on this review, it’s clear that lawmakers in Colorado and Kansas take seriously the job of tracking prison operations within their jurisdictions. Each state might benefit from considering the practices of the other. Kansas, for example, might want to form a commission on prison operations or make a topics timeline to plan out the fact-finding within their own committee. Colorado might consider seeking more public and interest group input on the committee’s operations, recording commission and committee meetings and uploading those recordings to YouTube, and holding committee hearings every few months to share and discuss the recommendations developed by the commission. Any state legislature should consider combining Colorado’s expert recommendations and planning with the hearing and testimony structure from Kansas when preparing to conduct oversight on state prison operations.
The Levin Center’s State Oversight Academy exists to help state legislatures working to conduct fact-finding. From prison operations to monitoring implementation of any government program, the Levin Center supports legislatures in fulfilling their duty to serve as the “eyes and voice of the people.” If you enjoyed this blog, please consider subscribing to the State Oversight Academy newsletter at https://www.levin-center.org/state-oversight-academy/. If you are a state legislator, consider attending the Levin Center’s upcoming virtual MasterClass. State legislators from across the country join oversight experts to build a response to a hypothetical prison operations scandal. Link to RSVP: https://www.levin-center.org/event/oversight-of-prison-operations-an-interactive-masterclass/.
For questions or comments, message Ben Eikey at firstname.lastname@example.org.