Local legislators back 'Hard 50' special session

7/27/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Local legislators said Friday they support Gov. Sam Brownback's call for a special session in September to fix the state's "Hard 50" criminal sentencing law.

State Reps. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, and John Doll, R-Garden City, both said Friday that House leadership gave members a heads-up about the possibility of a special session, and both agreed it is a good idea.

"It's obviously an important public safety law that probably needs to be addressed as soon as possible so it can continue," Jennings said. Doll agreed.

"I think it's necessary. I wish it would have been addressed in the regular session, but we can't allow people who commit horrendous, heinous acts to go free on some loophole after 25 years, so I think it needs to be fixed as soon as possible," Doll said.

In an email sent from the governor's office on Friday afternoon, Brownback announced he was calling the Legislature to a special session at 8 a.m. on Sept. 3, both in the interest of protecting public safety and in response to a request from Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Wednesday.

Schmidt's request was sparked by a U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 17 in a Virginia case that legal experts believe makes the state's current "Hard 50" law unconstitutional, because the sentencing decision is made by a judge and not a jury.

A "Hard 50" sentence is typically reserved for the worst killers. Currently, the law allows judges to sentence certain convicted murderers to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

According to the attorney general, the Legislature can cure the constitutional defect by adopting a relatively simple procedural fix allowing the jury to make the necessary factual findings before the "Hard 50" sentence is imposed.

Brownback indicated he thinks the Legislature can complete its work by the end of the business day on Sept. 5. Jennings said he also thinks the special session is narrow enough that it won't require a great deal of time to complete.

House leadership estimates the special session could cost $35,000 to $40,000 per day.

"There's certainly an expense associated with it, but on the cost-benefit side, if we take no action soon, then it would be delayed until at least January, and it's a good long time until January. I think it would be unwise to allow that to just continue as it is right now. It needs to be fixed," Jennings said.

"I'm a conservative guy and you hate to see the money that'll have to be spent to do this, but I think it has to be done," Doll said.

State Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, said he really didn't know much about the issue prompting the special session, but indicated the governor apparently thought it was necessary.

"I don't know that much about what the deal is. I didn't see it as that big a deal myself, but I'm a long ways from being a lawyer and a long ways from Topeka, so I don't know what all the repercussions are," Powell said. "It's his (the governor's) deal. I don't know whether it was necessary or not, but it must have been, because I don't think he would do it if he didn't think it was necessary."

In a press release, Brownback said the "Hard 50" sentence has been a vital public safety tool for more than 10 years that is intended to remove the most dangerous and violent killers from society for at least 50 years.

"The sudden absence of the 'Hard 50' sentence poses a real and present danger to the public safety of all Kansans. I am confident the Legislature can and will act quickly, with resolve and narrow focus, to protect our citizens by restoring to prosecutors the immediate ability to seek the 'Hard 50' sentence for the worst offenders," Brownback said.

Without the Hard 50 sentence, according to Schmidt, there would be an increase in the number of convicted murderers eligible for parole after 25 years.

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