State Senate panel takes up tougher crime measures

1/16/2014

TOPEKA (AP) — Top prosecutors on Wednesday urged a Kansas Senate committee to take a harder stance on certain murder sentences, including increasing the penalty for premeditated first-degree murder.

TOPEKA (AP) — Top prosecutors on Wednesday urged a Kansas Senate committee to take a harder stance on certain murder sentences, including increasing the penalty for premeditated first-degree murder.

The proposal heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee was a byproduct of debates held in September when legislators met in a special session to rewrite the state's "Hard 50" prison term, a life sentence with a mandatory 50 years before becoming eligible for parole, to bring the state law in line with a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Legislators are now considering further revisions that would elevate the presumptive sentence for premeditated first-degree murder from 25 years to life to the "Hard 50." But judges would have the discretion to lower the mandatory time before a defendant is eligible for parole.

Unlike the "Hard 50" law amended by legislators last fall, jurors would only decide if a defendant is guilty of the crime, but would not determine the sentence. The changes would apply to charges filed after July 1, the date legislators set for the law to take effect.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt testified in support of the change, saying it provided certainty to victims by guaranteeing convicted defendants would serve long sentences for their crimes.

"It's the right thing to do for a number of reasons," he said.

Jennifer Roth of the Kansas Association of Criminal and Defense Attorneys told the committee that changing the law, while constitutional, could result in more and longer court cases. She said with the 50-year minimum, defense attorneys would no longer have a lighter 25-year sentence available to negotiate a plea agreement with prosecutors as is the case under the current "Hard 50" scheme.

She said changing the minimum presumptive sentence was an unnecessary policy choice.

"I don't believe we've been presented any evidence that the 'Hard 25' isn't working," she said.

The committee also heard testimony on changing the sentence for attempted capital murder to life without parole eligibility for 25 years, an increase from the current 12-year term. Schmidt said the office decided to pursue the change after reviewing all murder sentences during and since the September special session.

The former senator said that it made little sense that there was such a glaring sentence difference between conviction for capital murder and attempted capital murder, especially if intent to harm is proven.

"That's what we seek to rectify," Schmidt said.

Legislators heard no opposition to the capital punishment proposal. The committee is expected to review both measures and send them to the full Senate for debate in the coming weeks.

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