Kansas committee completes work on ‘Hard 50’ sentencing

A select legislative committee finished work Monday on a proposal to amend the Kansas “Hard 50” prison sentence in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The panel of House and Senate judiciary leaders voted to recommend the bill’s introduction when legislators meet Sept. 3 in special session. The measure will be introduced in the House Judiciary Committee.

The legislation changes how Kansas’ mandatory 50 year prison sentence is imposed on certain convicted first-degree murder defendants. The nation’s high court ruled in June that mandatory sentences must be imposed by juries, not by judges as has been the case in Kansas.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback called the special session, scheduled to last three days, for legislators to fix the law. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the change is procedural, not substantial, which he believes will allow the state to apply it retroactively.

Schmidt, who drafted the proposed measure, spoke to members of the committee in Topeka.

“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.

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 goal is to make sure the sentence is available for pending cases.

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 said juries, not judges, must consider whether the facts in a case should prompt mandatory minimum sentences.

Criminal defense attorneys raised concerns about the proposal, saying changes were more than procedural.

Attorneys Randall Hodgkinson and Jessica Glendening testified that the proposed legislation would be unconstitutional if applied to people previously receiving the “Hard 50” term.

They argued that resentencing the defendants, believed to be fewer than 30, violates the U.S. and state constitution provisions against imposing a sentence for a crime after the fact.

“This proposed law will be challenged if it is made retroactive,” Glendening said.

Schmidt said Kansas would be defending the “Hard 50” sentences for years to come, but the proposed fix would improve the state’s chances in court.