Kansas lawmakers expect a lively debate next year on whether to revisit the state's penalties for murder, as some are pushing for tougher prison sentences while others are seeking to repeal capital punishment following an unsuccessful effort this past session.
The issue surfaced this month as legislators met briefly to fix a constitutional flaw in the procedure for imposing the Hard 50 prison sentence on offenders convicted of premeditated first-degree murder. The state took the action following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said juries, not judges, must consider whether the facts in a case should prompt mandatory minimum sentences.
Senate Vice President Jeff King said Friday the two-day special session brought into focus the need for policymakers to re-examine whether the state's murder sentences are adequate when compared to other crimes. Recent legislative sessions have led to increased penalties for sex crimes and kidnapping.
"I want to take a broad look at all the sentencing," said King, an Independence Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I think this is going to be an important part of our debate."
The Hard 50 changes applied to certain first-degree murder cases where the crimes were so heinous that prosecutors sought to put the offender away for 50 years without parole. The changes require juries, not judges, to consider factors that would merit the sentence, which is reserved for those cases that fall short of meriting death penalty consideration.
Like King, Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, believes the discussion of murder sentences will ultimately lead legislators to discuss whether to keep the death penalty or replace it with life in prison without parole.
"I believe now is the time for a discussion among those in the Legislature who consider religion a main part of their public service to decide whether it's necessary for a barbaric and immoral law should remain on the books," Haley said.
Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 when Democratic Gov. Joan Finney allowed a bill to become law without her signature. Finney based her decision on "the will of the people" after several years of failed legislative efforts, including a push by her Republican predecessor.
The last execution in the state was in 1965. Nine men are sentenced to die by lethal injection in Kansas.
Donna Schneweis, chairwoman of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is optimistic about the chances of a repeal bill passing, citing abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011 and Maryland this year.
"What we are witnessing is there really is support across the political spectrum, including conservatives, libertarians. It's not just moderates and liberals who are opposed," she said.
The last debate in Kansas was in 2010 when a bill failed on a 20-20 vote in the Senate. But King notes that nearly half of the senators involved in that debate have left office, making it difficult to predict the outcome of next year's debate. King wasn't in office; Haley was and voted for the repeal.
Eileen Hawley, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, said legislators may consider any topic they want, but repealing the death penalty isn't on Brownback's to-do list.
"The governor believes the death penalty is appropriate in some cases when it is necessary to protect public safety," she said.
Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, has asked legislative leaders for a day of hearings on whether the Hard 50 law should get tougher.
He wants to examine a proposal from Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, to make life without parole for 50 years the presumed sentence for premeditated, first-degree murder. Defendants would be allowed to argue there are circumstances warranting the lesser sentence of life with parole eligibility after 25 years.
Rubin said life without parole also is an option, which raises the issue of capital punishment. In Kansas murder cases, the Hard 50 is reserved for killings occurring during a felony with aggravating circumstances, such as the defendant shooting into a crowd or torturing a victim.
"A lot of these crimes we're talking about in Kansas are capital crimes in other states," Rubin said. "The idea is that Kansas is already more lenient than other states on these issues."
Rubin said keeping the death penalty deters inmates from committing violence against prison staff and other inmates. He called it "an absolutely essential tool" for prosecutors in capital cases, allowing them to obtain plea bargains for life-without-parole sentences.
Bruce, who supports the death penalty, said the key is to strike a balance among all criminal statutes so the punishment is proportional.
"Justice is not about exacting revenge, it tries to establish a harmony between the crime and society," he said.
But Haley said moving to life in prison without parole or the Hard 50 in all cases would give victims' families some level of cushion from having to re-live the murder at each parole hearing.
"We want to ensure that the resulting penalty keeps the offender away from the public," he said.