August 26, 2013

Kansas committee begins work on 'Hard 50' measure

The proposed legislation to fix Kansas' "Hard 50" prison sentence amounts to procedural change in the law, not a substantive altering, Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Monday.

Schmidt, who drafted the proposed measure, spoke to members of a select legislative committee in Topeka. The Republican said the measure is necessary after a June 17 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case regarding how prison sentences are handed down in first-degree murder cases.

"This was not a situation where the state had reason to believe our law was procedurally defective but failed to act," Schmidt said, noting that the high court had previously held the Kansas law to be constitutional.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback called a special session of the Kansas Legislature to rewrite the law. The special session begins Sept. 3 and is expected to last three days.

The special session's goal is to fix the law so that convicted murders can be sentenced in the future to life in prison without the chance of parole for 50 years. The other is to make sure the sentence is available for pending cases.

Prosecutors and key legislators maintain that the courts will allow the state to apply changes in the law retroactively because the revisions will be procedural, not a shift in policy. The "Hard 50" has been in place since 1994, when Kansas reinstated capital punishment.

In Kansas, judges have determined whether aggravating factors in cases of premeditated, first-degree murder — such as whether a defendant tortured a victim or shot into a crowd — warrant the "Hard 50" instead of a sentence of life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Virginia case that juries, not judges, must consider whether the facts in a case should prompt mandatory minimum sentences.

The basic change going forward in Kansas would be having juries consider the evidence arguing for and against a "Hard 50" sentence, rather than judges. The state already has such a process in place in death penalty cases.

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