Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has threatened to sue the City of Wichita if voters approve a ballot initiative to reduce the criminal penalties for first time offenses of possession of small amounts of marijuana, stating that the proposed city ordinance would contradict state law. However, based on Schmidt’s record in the Senate and his campaign finance disclosures, he may have an ulterior motive for opposing what supporters call a commonsense reform measure.
The ballot initiative, which is set to be voted on this April 7, would reduce the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, and/or related paraphernalia to a maximum penalty of a fifty dollar fine, and would change the offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction. The Wichita City Council voted 6-1 to place the initiative on the April ballot after petitioners gathered over 3,000 signatures from registered voters.
As the Kansas Senate Majority Leader, Schmidt nearly derailed the implementation of Jessica’s Law by including provisions that would allow for private prisons to operate in the state, because residents of Yates Center wanted to open such a facility in the town, which was in Schmidt’s district. Schmidt threatened to adjourn the session if these provisions were removed from the bill, which was designed to protect children from violent predators and had nothing to do with prison privatization.
Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill without Schmidt’s language to privatize prisons, and Kansas remains one of twenty-three states that do not permit prison privatization. Schmidt has also been tied to the practice of allowing private corporations to set up manufacturing facilities inside prisons, which Kansas law does allow for. In 2010, Schmidt accepted campaign money from Fred Braun, who is responsible for a program that brought three struggling private corporations into Leavenworth Prison, to exploit cheap prison labor. Inmates employed by these companies are required to pay a portion of their wages back to the prison for “room and board”. This was considered to be a “charitable” effort.
Schmidt is listed as the director of Independence Industries, Inc., but what this company does is unclear. A Google search of the company turns up very little, aside from Schmidt’s association with the entity. We could not even locate an address, aside from “Independence, Kansas 67301”. Searches of various business directory databases also turned up nothing on the company.
Nationwide, 37 states including Kansas allow private corporations to use inmate labor. In most cases, the inmates in state-run prisons are paid minimum wage, but in some states, like Colorado, prisoners are paid $2.00 per hour. However, in private prisons, inmates are paid as little as 17 cents per hour, or, about $20 each week.
Two companies control 75% of the private prisons in America, and these companies are both publicly traded. In shareholder meetings and documents, private prison corporations cite the high recidivism rate of inmates as a sign of market stability. In other words, they are saying that their dirt cheap labor force will not diminish because of the high rate of parolees who return to prison. These corporations, along with the companies that use the prison labor, also lobby for stricter drug and immigration laws to ensure high incarceration rates.
The United States currently incarcerates more people per capita, and in real numbers, than any other nation in the world, primarily due to the war on drugs.
So, when Derek Schmidt threatens to sue the City of Wichita for allowing taxpayers to vote on lowering penalties for marijuana possession, questioning the Attorney General’s motives on this issue does seem quite reasonable. Calls to Schmidt’s office were not immediately returned.