Their goal is to match their personalities to one of four colors. Tim Witte, 27, on probation for evading arrest, eyes the task as if sizing up a fellow middle-weight on Kansas' gritty cage-fighting circuit. Witte and two drug offenders settle on orange.
The color, indicative of a restless, risk-taking personality, is the hue of choice for most offenders, says Michelle Stephenson, the corrections officer leading the unusual exercise.
Not long ago, Stephenson admits, the evening state-sponsored "behavioral modification" session — designed to help ex-offenders avoid costly prison time — might have been considered a perversion of this conservative state's strict law-and-order credo. But this isn't the same Kansas anymore.
"It used to be that it was more about waiting for them to mess up and send them back to prison," Stephenson says. "In this time and this economy, you can't afford to keep doing that. There is a better way to do business."
The class is part of a state effort to save millions of dollars in prison costs by changing how criminals are treated. Kansas is closing some prisons, boosting support for offenders on probation and declining to return them to prison for every probation violation.
Here and across the nation, the deepening financial crisis is forcing dramatic changes in the hard-line, punishment-based philosophy that has dominated the USA's criminal justice system for nearly two decades.
As 31 states report budget gaps that the National Governor's Association says totaled nearly $30 billion last year, criminal justice officials and lawmakers are proposing and enacting cost-cutting changes across the public safety spectrum, with uncertain ramifications for the public.