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Archive for Friday, December 26, 2003

Senator defends sentencing rules

December 26, 2003

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A key state lawmaker defended Kansas' sentencing guidelines this week after victims, prosecutors and a judge complained that the guidelines limited punishment for defendants in two recent Lawrence shootings.

Sen. John Vratil, the Leawood Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said prosecutors -- not the sentencing guidelines -- were to blame if there were injustices in the sentences handed down to gunmen Tremain V. Scott and Jason A. Tremble.

"I think the guidelines work pretty well," Vratil said.

Scott, 22, Overland Park, received a five-year sentence Monday for the shooting death of Quincy M. Sanders of Lawrence, who, according to an autopsy, died with 18 gunshot wounds. The sentence was short in part because Scott has no criminal history and in part because prosecutors allowed him to plead down from second-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter.

"That's not a criticism of the sentencing guidelines," Vratil said. "That's a criticism of your prosecutorial discretion and plea bargaining."

Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney responded by questioning why, under the law, a level 2 felony carries double the penalty of a slightly less severe level 3 felony. Scott was initially charged with a level 2 felony, but his sentence was cut in half when he pleaded to a level 3 amid concerns that he would be able to argue self-defense at trial.

Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin said at Scott's sentencing it was "incomprehensible" to her that someone could kill another person and face a maximum of five years. Before 1993, when the sentencing guidelines took effect, a judge could sentence defendants to a broad range of years, and the release date would be determined by the parole process.

Despite Vratil's criticism of prosecutors, there was no plea bargaining in the case of Tremble, 21, Topeka, a repeat offender and convicted felon who injured 11 people during an Oct. 5 shooting outside a downtown bar. He was charged with 11 counts of aggravated battery and two other offenses, and he pleaded guilty as charged.

At sentencing, Martin said she wanted to string the sentences for all of Tremble's offenses back to back-- which would have put him in prison for about 10 years. But because of a law that caps sentences in cases with multiple charges, Martin could sentence him to only 40 months, or slightly more than 3 years.




Kenney said the cap on multiple-charge punishments is unfair and that the law needs to change in order to give judges more discretion.

"I don't think there's a legitimate reason for restricting the number of counts that a judge can run consecutive," she said.

Vratil disagrees.

"What if you had the same guy who, instead of injuring 11 people, injured 30 people, and you didn't have the cap?" he asked. "Nobody would think that's reasonable" to sentence him for all 30 counts back-to-back, he said.

The guidelines -- based on a grid that combines a defendant's criminal-history score with the crime's severity level -- were adopted to create consistency in sentencing statewide. Critics say the guidelines are inflexible and strip judges of their discretion.

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