Monday, December 22, 2014

‘Hard 50’ decision prompts swift call for session

By The Herald Staff | 7/26/2013

Franklin County’s legislators are heading back to Topeka earlier than expected.

Though the regular Kansas legislative session wrapped early this summer, Gov. Sam Brownback called Friday for a short special session to begin Sept. 3 to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that jeopardizes the Sunflower State’s “Hard 50” sentencing practices, which were enacted in 1999.

Franklin County’s legislators are heading back to Topeka earlier than expected.

Though the regular Kansas legislative session wrapped early this summer, Gov. Sam Brownback called Friday for a short special session to begin Sept. 3 to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that jeopardizes the Sunflower State’s “Hard 50” sentencing practices, which were enacted in 1999.

“‘Hard 50’ is a vital public safety tool enacted by the Legislature more than a decade ago to remove the ‘worst of the worst’ killers from society for at least 50 years,” Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general, said Wednesday in a letter to Brownback urging the governor to call a special session.

Brownback echoed Schmidt’s sentiments Friday in his announcement.

“The sudden absence of the ‘Hard 50’ sentence poses a real and present danger to the public safety of all Kansans,” Brownback said.

Legal experts say the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 17 decision in Alleyne v. United States renders the current Kansas “Hard 50” law unconstitutional because the sentencing decision is made by a judge and not the jury, Brownback’s office said Friday.

The Legislature can cure the constitutional defect by adopting a relatively simple procedural fix allowing the jury to making the necessary factual findings before the “Hard 50” sentence is imposed, Brownback and Schmidt said.

The special session is expected to be complete by Sept. 5. Schmidt had cautioned against lawmakers waiting until the next regular session, saying putting the issue off until January would  “virtually guarantee” an increase in “the number of convicted killers who will be eligible for parole after only 25 years instead of after 50 years.”

Because of the constitutional and statutory requirement that the state must bring criminal defendants to trial in a speedy manner, time is of the essence, Brownback said.

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, who serves as chairman of the House GOP freshman caucus and works on the House committees for Judiciary, Corrections and Juvenile Justice, agreed with the need for an early return to the Statehouse.

“Special sessions should only be used when absolutely necessary,” Finch said. “The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that might result in the loss of the ‘Hard 50’ sentence for some of the worst criminals in Kansas makes this session a necessity. We should work quickly to address this important issue for the people of our state.”

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