Archive for Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Inmates fall between sentencing standards

New guidelines ease nonviolent drug punishment

August 19, 2003


Much has changed in the decade since Gloria VanWinkle and Paul Goseland began serving life sentences in Kansas prisons for possessing small amounts of cocaine.

For one thing, the 2003 Legislature enacted a new law that would result in a maximum of 17 months in prison for the same nonviolent drug crimes for which the pair were confined years ago.

The new law, which becomes effective Nov. 1, is aimed more at rehabilitation than its draconian predecessor. But it is not retroactive, so VanWinkle and Goseland will continue their costly life terms as wards of the state corrections department.

By the time both are first eligible for parole -- VanWinkle in 2007, Goseland in 2009 -- taxpayers will have spent almost $800,000 to keep the two locked up.

"This makes no sense to me," said Goseland, 51. "I'm not whining, I'll take my punishment -- but that's not the question here. The question is why we as a taxpaying society think it makes sense to spend our money on life sentences for nonviolent drug offenders? Myself, I don't see how possession of a narcotic equates to (a life sentence for) murder."

Three strikes

Goseland, who ran a successful tropical plant business in Wichita, was caught three times with small amounts of cocaine. He's been in prison since November 1992.

"The first two times, I got put on probation," he said. "The third time -- because it was the third time -- I got booted up to a Class A felony, which at the time meant life."

Though he disagrees with the sentence, Goseland blames neither the police nor the courts for his troubles.

"I was definitely addicted," he said. "I'm sad to admit that, but it's the truth."

At the women's correctional facility in Topeka, VanWinkle said she had seen "drunk drivers who've killed come in and out of here in 18 months" and child molesters come and go while she remained in prison.

"Look, I know I screwed up, but I never hurt anybody and I sure didn't kill anybody -- but they're out of here in 18 months and I'm doing life?" the 44-year-old woman said. "Something's wrong."

Under the state's sentencing guidelines, the presumptive sentence for a drunken driver involved in a fatal accident is 17 months. A child molester can be out in 49 months.

VanWinkle, who has served 10 years, has two school-age children. They live with her mother.

"Drugs just about did me in," said VanWinkle, who grew up and, she says, "ran wild" in Junction City.

VanWinkle and Goseland each have appealed their convictions and sentences -- and lost.

"There's not much else she can do," said Linda Barnes-Pointer, a Junction City criminal defense attorney who has studied VanWinkle's case.

'Warehousing' offenders

VanWinkle's and Goseland's sentences may seem excessive compared with current state policy. But according to several court rulings the sentences were legally rendered and do not warrant reversal or reduction.

"I don't know how we got to the point of sentencing someone to life for possession -- of course, I guess, back in the 1950s we sentenced people to life for smoking marijuana," Barnes-Pointer said.

"But I'm one of those who thinks life sentences should be reserved for 'person crimes' that pose great harm to society and are outside the norm," she said. "That's not what we have here; I hate to say it, but drug possession is not all that uncommon anymore."

According to Kansas Department of Corrections records, three inmates -- VanWinkle, Goseland and Stephen Rome -- are serving life sentences for third-time possession.

Attempts to contact Rome for comment were unsuccessful.

In the state's prisons last month, 752 inmates were in on first-, second- or third-time possession charges. An additional 1,372 were in on other drug-related charges, mostly for selling or for possession with intent to sell. Each inmate costs the state $26,000 annually to incarcerate.

Twenty-four percent of the state's 9,053 inmates are serving drug-related sentences.

That's too many, said Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"We're warehousing," he said. "At some point that may have been what the public wanted. But as more and more states, including Kansas, are faced with overcrowded prisons and limited resources, there's going to have to be some sort of cost-benefit analysis applied."

The costs of lengthy sentences for drug possession, Vratil said, outweigh the benefits.

"Put the costs of warehousing these people up against the threat they pose to public safety -- it doesn't add up, it's not to society's benefit," Vratil said. "It's costing us more than we get back. That money can be better spent."

Reforming the law

Vratil, who's also a member of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, was a key player in getting this year's Legislature to pass Senate Bill 123, a reform package aimed at putting drug users in treatment programs rather than prison.

After Nov. 1, people convicted of drug possession will be sent to a drug rehabilitation program rather than prison. Those caught with drugs again will either spend 60 days in the county jail, return to treatment or both.

Failure to complete the program or a third conviction will result in prison time. Senate Bill 123 does not apply to people convicted of manufacturing or selling drugs.

Prison officials expect the law to delay the need for additional beds for one year.

Legislators rejected efforts to make the bill retroactive, so it will not affect the sentences of the 752 inmates such as VanWinkle and Goseland who are serving time for possession. Housing these 752 inmates costs taxpayers $19.5 million a year.

"I doubt that we'll deal with the question of retroactivity for another two or three years," Vratil said. "We need to see how (Senate Bill) 123 works, first."

If it works, Vratil said he thought the public would demand retroactivity.

"We're not there yet," he said.

The Kansas Sheriff's Assn. isn't sold on the idea.

"We're not in favor of retroactivity," said Darrell Wilson, the association's executive director. "Our position is that a person ought to be aware of the consequences involved in the crimes they commit. And when they get caught, they should suffer those consequences."

Little hope

Still, Wilson said, VanWinkle's and Goseland's life sentences appear overly harsh.

"We think you ought to serve your sentence," he said, "but we're also advocates for fairness."

VanWinkle and Goseland have filed requests for clemency with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' office.

Their chances for success there appear slim, at best.

"It's our position," said Matt All, Sebelius' chief legal counsel and pardons attorney, "that it's the Legislature's prerogative to establish the appropriate sentences for crimes, and for us to go back and change a sentence that's been set by the Legislature and upheld by the courts -- it's going to have to be a case of extreme injustice; it would have to be extraordinary."

Asked whether a life sentence for third-time possession met that criteria, All replied: "I don't know."

Earlier, VanWinkle and Goseland sought clemency from former Gov. Bill Graves. He turned them down.

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