Sentencing measures weighed on Kansas Legislature’s opening day

01/14/2014 12:17 AM

01/14/2014 5:53 AM

Kansas legislators convened their 90-day session Monday and were expected to quickly delve into crime legislation, including efforts to modify the state’s “Hard 50” prison sentence and increase the penalty for attempted capital murder.

Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found juries, not judges, must determine whether to impose minimum sentences, the Legislature changed Kansas law last fall to comply. Juries now decide whether to impose the mandatory “Hard 50” sentence – life without parole for 50 years – for premeditated first-degree murder. “Hard 50” is the state’s toughest penalty behind capital punishment and life without parole.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said he hoped the Legislature could build on last year’s momentum and go a step farther on modifying the “Hard 50” law. He and two other GOP senators have proposed making a 50-year prison term the automatic penalty for first-degree murder but allowing for defense attorneys to argue mitigating factors why a defendant should serve a minimum of 25 years instead.

Another measure, sought by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, would increase the punishment for attempted capital murder. King said the change would increase the penalty to life without parole for 25 years, up from the current 12 years.

King said many of these proposals surfaced as legislators met during the special session but didn’t have time to expand their scope.

“That’s one of the reasons that we are taking it up quickly so that there are no oversights in our murder sentencing,” he said.

Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was pleased that King also scheduled a hearing this week on a bill that would abolish the death penalty. Haley said he was optimistic that the mood in the Statehouse had shifted since 2010 when the Senate deadlocked at 20-20 to repeal the law.

Haley said he didn’t know how effective yet another proposal would be in shortening the time for appeals of a death penalty sentence. As an opponent of capital punishment, he is pleased the state hasn’t carried out an execution since the law took effect in 1994.

“The day Kansas actually has an execution would be an immoral end to an overly expensive process,” he said.

Seven new House members took their seats while Sen. Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, began his final session before facing a confirmation committee to consider his appointment to the Kansas Corporation Commission.

Emler is expected to easily win confirmation and would resign his seat. A replacement would be appointed by local GOP leaders.

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