Session raises sentencing issues
By JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA -- Kansas legislators plan to make quick work of fixing the state's "Hard 50" criminal sentencing law during the special session that began today, but their discussions ahead of the opening gavels have raised other issues about punishing murderers.
Lawmakers from both parties see widespread agreement on legislation to rewrite the law allowing defendants convicted of premeditated, first-degree murder to be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June raised questions about the law's constitutionality.
A joint legislative committee already has tinkered with a proposal for fixing the law from Attorney General Derek Schmidt, and legislative leaders hope the final version of the measure will pass by Wednesday evening. The issue is relatively simple: Having juries weigh evidence on whether the "Hard 50" should be imposed, rather than trial court judges, as is the case now.
But in working on a quick fix last week, legislators already were pondering whether a repaired "Hard 50" law is tough enough, particularly after they boosted penalties for violent sex offenses and other crimes such as human trafficking in recent years. That, in turn, is likely to spur debate about the Kansas death penalty law, which was enacted in 1994 but so far has resulted in no executions.
"Anytime you look at a sentencing provision in the law, it's bound to generate a discussion about whether that sentence and other parts of our sentencing guidelines are reflective of the appropriate punishment," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
Legislative leaders want to avoid a broader debate about criminal sentencing until lawmakers convene their next regular, annual session in January. When Republican Gov. Sam Brownback scheduled the Legislature's special session last month, his proclamation called for lawmakers to finish their work by Thursday. Each day costs taxpayers approximately $40,000.
Because lawmakers are in session, the Senate is legally obligated to consider pending appointments, including Brownback's nomination of his chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, to the state Court of Appeals. Democrats in each chamber also want to soften a state law requiring new voters to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship when they register, but the effort isn't likely to get far because the policy was backed by GOP conservatives now in control.
Meanwhile, the "Hard 50" fix is generating little controversy, except for skepticism among defense attorneys that the changes can be applied retroactively to cases in which defendants are awaiting trial or have sentences on appeal. That issue probably will be settled ultimately by the Kansas Supreme Court, but lawmakers generally don't want defendants in pending cases to get the alternative sentence, life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years.
"As far as I know, there's universal agreement," said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican.
Under the existing Kansas law, trial court judges decide whether aggravating factors, such as a defendant torturing a victim or shooting into a crowd intending to kill a single victim, warrants the "Hard 50." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June in a Virginia case that juries, not judges, must decide whether evidence warrants a mandatory minimum sentence.
The proposal before lawmakers contemplates having the same juries that consider a defendant's guilt determine whether the "Hard 50" is warranted. The measure calls for new sentencing hearings before juries in pending cases.
"This is going to slide through with little opposition," said Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Bruce last week suggested a tougher "Hard 50" law. Under his proposal, defendants convicted of premeditated, first-degree murder automatically face the sentence but could ask a judge to lessen the punishment. Bruce said lawmakers also could consider imposing a sentence of life with no chance of parole, as other states in the region do.
Life-without-parole is the sentence for defendants convicted of capital murder when juries don't recommend lethal injection. Also, the sentence can be imposed for repeat, violent sex offenders, and Bruce said there's now a "perverse incentive" for some of those offenders to kill their victims rather than assault them.
"We always want premeditated murder to carry the harshest sentence in the Kansas criminal code," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican.
Haley said he also wants to discuss repealing the death penalty. Critics of the state's law have questioned whether it can be administered fairly and suggested the lengthy appeals involved in each case can make it too costly.
The law's supporters -- who doubt a majority in both chambers would vote for repeal -- contend it's an appropriate penalty for a small number of crimes. The state's last executions were in 1965 under a previous law eventually invalidated by the courts.
King acknowledged a discussion of the death penalty is a natural byproduct of any debate about murder sentences.
And Davis said, "I would envision that the Legislature is going to have that debate on into the future."