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Archive for Sunday, May 9, 1993

JUSTICE SYSTEM PREPARES FOR NEW SENTENCING GUIDES

May 9, 1993

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Will county jails be overloaded? Will nearly 2,000 Kansas prison inmates be released on July 1?

No to both questions, says Lisa Moots, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

Moots says she's been trying to dispel recent rumors about the effects of the state's new sentencing guidelines, which go into effect July 1.

The guidelines, developed and approved by the 1992 Legislature then modified slightly by the 1993 Legislature, are a grid developed for judges to use to provide for better management of the state's prison system and end what some think has been discrimination.

Under the current system, geography, race and income had been found to affect the length of a sentence. The grid is designed so people with similar criminal histories who commit similar crimes get similar sentences.

Some crimes are not contained on the grid, including first-degree murder, aircraft piracy and treason and will have sentences as provided under current law.

Moots says she doesn't see how the guidelines will have any effect on the populations of county jails. She said the guidelines deal only with felonies, and county jails are for people serving sentences for misdemeanor offenses, people awaiting trial for felony offenses or those who have been convicted of a felony offense who are waiting to go to prison.

"None of that will be impacted,'' Moots said.

However, Douglas County Dist. Atty. Jerry Wells, thinks differently.

Wells explained that under the new sentencing guidelines, there is no room for plea bargaining. That means more people will want to go to trial -- and more of them will be placed in the county jails awaiting trial.

``As to the other impacts, we'll just have to wait and see,'' Wells said. He said it could mean a need for a minimum security facility or the need for more courtrooms.

Wells predicted the new guidelines would affect the sheriff's office, which runs the jail, local community corrections and court services.

``The whole system is going to be impacted,'' he said. ``This is probably the most serious change in the criminal justice system for years.''

Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin said it was his understanding that some people convicted of burglary might not be sent to prison under the new guidelines.

If that's true, there could be problems, Olin said.

``A single burglar can adversely affect the climate in the city,'' he said. ``Single individuals often are perpetrators of dozens of these types of crimes.''

Bill Miskell, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, said there are no solid figures yet, ``but we do know that the number of people who will be sent to prison as part of a felony conviction will go down. The number of people who will be put on probation or be placed in community corrections will go up. We don't know how much.''

Miskell said there is a provision in the law limiting the amount of time a person can stay in a county jail.

``We do know that there are a number of jails that are currently having population difficulties,'' Miskell said.

He said Johnson, Sedgwick and Shawnee counties are looking at expanding their jails.

Miskell and Moots said that under the new law, there is a provision calling for a retroactive application to those people now in prison, who, under the guidelines, would have been placed on probation.

Olin said he had heard from the state parole office that as many as 1,400 inmates would be placed on immediate release status beginning July 1.

However, ``Nobody's going to get out on July 1,'' Moots said. ``There is no release mechanism.''

Moots said the retroactivity is limited under the law. Although the Department of Corrections has indicated about 2,000 to 2,200 inmates may fit in the retroactivity provision, they are only eligible to have their cases reviewed by the courts -- not to be released, she said.

``We have no idea how the courts will treat the cases,'' she said. ``We have heard that the prosecutors will plan to challenge the possible conversion of sentences in almost every case.''

Miskell explained that the corrections department has tried to see where all the inmates in the state's prisons would fit if they had fallen under the new guidelines.

``If they wouldn't have come to prison anyway under the application of the guidelines, then they will be eligible for release,'' he said.

The law provides that the corrections department prepare the court with reports on the first group of inmates by Aug. 15, the second group in October and the third group by December.

The first group will include non-drug crime offenders who would have received probation, including people who have committed such felony offenses as dogfighting, obtaining a prescription by fraud (on a second or subsequent offense), bigamy, incest, nonsupport of a child or spouse, sports bribery, criminal use of a credit card or desecrating a cemetery.

The reports for the group of inmates who would fall into higher severity levels of nondrug crime and those who have committed minor drug-related felonies will be back to the court by Oct. 15, Miskell said.

Crimes in that category would include blackmail, aggravated incest, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and promoting prostitution.

The corrections department is required to have a report on a third group of inmates by Dec. 15 who would fall into one of five specified ``border'' grid boxes.

Aggravated burglary with no prior criminal history could be included in that group, Miskell said.

After the courts gets the reports on inmates in each of the three groups, there will be a 30-day period when a prosecutor or the inmate can appeal the report, Miskell said. If an objection is filed, the court has 60 days to hold a hearing. Then the court would have 30 days to impose the appropriate sentence, according to the new guidelines.

Rep. Forrest Swall, D-Lawrence, said he doesn't think the shift to the new system will have the impact on local jails that some are suggesting.

``A lot of that has to do with the way in which local corrections people administer their programs,'' Swall said. ``We're putting people in jail and in prison who are not serious and/or dangerous. What the sentencing guidelines will do is to provide a more objective way of making those judgments about seriousness and dangerousness.''

Swall said the state will need to put more money into community corrections programs.

``Almost anything is less costly than building new prisons,'' he said.

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