During the last year, some of the state's keenest legal minds have been putting together proposals to bring structured sentencing to Kansas. The idea is simple: See that people who commit similar crimes get similar sentences.
One of the most challenging tasks of the Kansas Legislature will be turning those ideas into workable public policy, say two Lawrence legislators.
"It's a lot bigger and more complicated and more technically difficult than anybody realizes," said Rep. John Solbach, D-Lawrence, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
"I do know that it will send a strong message to would-be criminals: If you do the crime, you do the time," said Sen. Wint Winter Jr., R-Lawrence, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Another criminal justice issue that is likely to come up this session is the death penalty, says Solbach, who has been a long opponent of capital punishment.
"EVERYBODY'S in favor of it when they read about a horrendous murder in the newspaper," Solbach said. "But when you sit down and analyze it, it doesn't make any sense. It doesn't do anything for us. It's much more expensive."
Solbach said if the death penalty is assigned to the judiciary committee, he would send it to the Kansas Sentencing Commission to determine what it will cost, what it will do to prison population.
The cost of adding a death penalty is between $4 million and $16 million more a year, he said.
He said that although 60 to 80 percent of the population say they favor the death penalty, in 90 percent to 95 percent of death penalty cases, juries will not award the death penalty. And when death sentences are handed down, some flaw is found in about half of them so the death sentences are never carried out, Solbach said.
Winter, who is also a death penalty opponent, said if a capital punishment proposal does arise, it probably won't originate in the Senate.
"ANYTHING is possible. But I know of no organized effort to bring that up," Winter said. "I think the hard 40 bill, where you basically lock them up and throw away the key (for 40 years) has taken a lot of fire out of that issue."
Winter and Solbach, who are both local attorneys, worked on the structured sentencing legislation this summer on the joint interim judiciary committee.
The interim committee produced a bill that made significant changes in what the lawmakers considered last year, Solbach said.
"The changes keep the prison population within reasonable bounds," Solbach said. "We're just not going to see immediate savings in this. What we can do is stop the phenomenal growth of the prison population and get a handle on the corrections budget so it doesn't eat us out of house and home."
Winter, whose Senate committee will get first crack at the new bill, said sentencing guidelines are needed to develop "truth in sentencing."
"I KNOW that our current system is broken," Winter said. The legislation would eliminate ambiguities, such as parole and "early outs," he said.
Winter said many people resent and distrust the current criminal justice system.
"We don't know how long people are going to serve in prisons," he said. "We don't know if they break into a person's car, if that person is going to go to prison or to boot camp. . . . I think it will help reduce mistrust in the system and will help restore discipline and certainty in the punishment system."
Winter said he doesn't share Solbach's strong interest in reducing the prison population.
SOLBACH SAYS he wants the prison population cut to curtail the spiraling corrections budget, which gobbled up about 60 percent of the new money available in the state's general fund last year.
"The money that is falling into corrections is money that cannot go for higher eductation or other programs," Solbach said.
"By all objective purposes, we probably have 30 percent to 40 percent more people in prison than we have to have for the protection of our citizens," Solbach said. "That's quite expensive. I don't think we're going to roll that back but I think we're going to try to get it under control."
Minnesota has roughly twice the population of Kansas and the same crime rate, but has roughly half as many people in prison, Solbach said. Minnesota's per capita spending on corrections is significantly less than Kansas, he said.
THE MAIN difference is that Kansas has approved too many "get tough on crime" bills in the past without looking at the costs involved, he said.
The sentencing guideline proposals wouldn't reduce the prison population, but would stabilize it, Solbach said.
"It does let us get a handle on the corrections budget and the size of our prison population and I think that's what we're going to have to do if we're going to be fiscally responsibile," he said.
Solbach said he can't yet support the bill the interim committee has recommended because it is still too costly. He said he hoped Winter's committee could reduce the costs.