Archive for Sunday, October 22, 2006

Crime bill rears its head as race heats up

Kline and Morrison disagree on SB323

October 22, 2006


— In the late 1990s, the Kansas Legislature had been on a joyride, passing record tax cuts and increasing sentences for crimes.

It was good politics, but in 2000, the bill came due.

Costs were mounting to operate state government, including prisons, and dwindling tax revenues pointed to future economic problems.

Charles Simmons, head of the state prison system at the time, was running out of room for inmates.

He told the Legislature he needed $17 million to build two new cell houses in El Dorado. But lawmakers were in no mood to hear it.

They turned to the Kansas Sentencing Commission, and that started the wheels in motion for what became known as Senate Bill 323: a controversial measure that Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a Republican seeking re-election, has used to hammer his opponent, Democrat Paul Morrison.

Kline holds up SB 323 as an example of what is wrong with government and politics. He has accused some of those who supported it of being soft on crime and implied they share responsibility for vicious crimes that have been committed.

In 2000, Kline was a member of the House, and he voted against SB 323. Morrison was vice chairman of the Kansas Sentencing Commission that produced the plan and supported it.

Senate Bill 323

More video on Senate Bill 323 and whether the bill is responsible for the early release of inmates. Enlarge video

"Paul Morrison knows his legislation released hundreds of felons from prison early and that it reduced supervision of felons who committed crimes such as the intentional torture of a child, child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, failure to register as a sex offender, stalking, arson, and shooting at a home," Kline said.

But Morrison says Kline has totally misrepresented what SB 323 did. Morrison says it was legislation that freed up prison space to put away heinous criminals, thus preventing crimes from occurring.

During one debate after Kline criticized Morrison over the bill, Morrison, who has been Johnson County district attorney for the past 18 years, said, "Phill, you know that is untrue. Why do you continue to say it? I've never done anything in my life but keep dangerous people behind bars."

Former state Sen. David Adkins, who helped shepherd SB 323 through the Legislature, said it is impossible to boil down the facts of the bill into a sound bite or 30-second television ad.

"There's a little bit of truth on both sides of this issue. Unfortunately, the nuances are lost in the sledgehammer world of gotcha politics," said Adkins, who was defeated by Kline in the 2002 Republican Party race for attorney general, a campaign in which SB 323 also figured prominently.

Managing prison space

When debated in the Legislature, SB 323 was called the Corrections Megabill. It dealt with sentencing, parole violations, periods of post-release supervision and community corrections, and it appropriated $6.2 million for construction of a 100-bed unit for maximum security prisoners.

Because there was no political will for mammoth prison expansion, Adkins, who was in the House at the time, said the goal was to better manage the prison population.

Some lawmakers, he said, feared a prolonged period of prison overcrowding could have landed the state in federal court and led to federal supervision of the state prison system.

In 1999, nearly one-third of admissions to the prison system were for people who had violated their conditions of release. Most of the violations were for substance abuse or failure to report to parole officers, and many of those people had original offenses that carried no prison sentences to start with, according to state officials at the time.

So, lawmakers decided to try to stop clogging up the prison with these kinds of offenders by reducing the amount of time certain inmates would be on parole once they left prison.

"We were saying, if we have to make a choice, let's reserve prison space so that violent criminals serve out their prison sentence and try to move these technical violators into community settings," Adkins said.

The Sentencing Commission, which works with the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Legislature in developing sentencing practices, put together a plan that became SB 323. The bill enjoyed bipartisan support, passing in the House 69-54 and the Senate, 36-4.

Less prison time

After its passage, the Kansas Department of Corrections reviewed the status of thousands of inmates.

By the end of 2000, 3,645 offenders had been discharged from the system, meaning they had completed their sentences.

As those sentences were discharged, the criminal justice system filled the prisons with other offenders.

By the end of 2000, there were more than 8,300 inmates in the system, approximately 200 fewer than when the year started.

The bill was a success in terms of managing the prison population. But the political ramifications were only starting.

Kline often mentions that many of the inmates that were discharged under SB 323 committed new crimes to land themselves back in prison. Supporters of the bill say that had nothing to do with SB 323 but merely reflected the fact that many criminals commit new offenses and return to prison.

Adkins said lawmakers are partially to blame for the revolving door because they have shortchanged prison rehabilitation programs. He said the "culture" of the Legislature at the time SB 323 was approved was to cut state government.

"When you cut off the spigot and you have mounting pressures to fund schools and highways, there's not a big lobbyist for prisoners," he said.

One criminal Kline mentions who was affected by SB 323 is Reginald Carr, who now faces a death sentence for a vicious crime spree in December 2000 that left five dead.

A fundraising letter signed by Kline described Carr as being "released early by Morrison's bill."

But the Department of Corrections has stated that Carr's early release from state supervision was because of a clerical error.

Repeat of 2002

Adkins felt the sting of SB 323 when he was running against Kline in 2002 for the GOP nomination for attorney general.

During the race, a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, based in Falls Church, Va., ran television ads linking SB 323 to Carr's prison release.

Then-Gov. Bill Graves described the ad as "absolutely outrageous"; the group that paid for it, "shadowy"; and he called on Kline to denounce it because the ad could jeopardize criminal proceedings against Carr, which at that time had not yet started.

Kline's campaign denied any ties to the ad or the group that ran it. But the campaign said the ad's linkage of Adkins to the release of Carr from parole supervision was fair game.

Today, Adkins, who is now vice chancellor of external affairs at KU Medical Center, said he sees Kline using SB 323 again.

"If something works, you try it again," he said.


oldgoof 11 years, 1 month ago

Great article. This kind of depth on an issue is too infrequently seen. And the online links to KDOC primary resource materials is a great idea.. . It may be implied in the article, but perhaps should be specifically restated, that Adkins is not the only person with this understanding of SB 323 including the "Carr brothers" canard.....but it is also that of Stephen, Stovall, the Kansas Department of Corrections, and many other knowledgeable people.

To believe Kline, you would have to accept that the entire legislature, and governor have all been guilty of all the malfeasance portrayed in Klines ads. Soft on crime? Hardly. By any and every measure. . Klines political advertising is simply baseless and terribly corrupt, and plays to peoples fears of crime and criminals.

And it should be criminal to elect an Attorney General who resorts to these tactics.

But that level of intellectual honesty is what I and others have learned to expect as typical from Mr. Kline.
. The whole topic of his taking advantage of good honest church going people is another topic, but related to his lack of intellectual honesty. . But as Mr. Adkins notes..."if something works, you try it again"

jonas 11 years, 1 month ago

"Klines political advertising is simply baseless and terribly corrupt, and plays to peoples fears of crime and criminals."

Here, let me fix this for you.

"Klines political career is simply baseless and terribly corrupt, and plays to peoples fears of crime and criminals."

ASBESTOS 11 years, 1 month ago

The heart of the matter and showing the distortion of Phil Kline:

"To believe Kline, you would have to accept that the entire legislature, and governor have all been guilty of all the malfeasance portrayed in Klines ads."

Good analysis Oldgoof!

Baille 11 years, 1 month ago

Politicians like Kline count on people not taking the time or expending the energy on investigating the half-truths and the bumper stickers that passes for analysis they throw around.

Kline has always lacked depth, which quickly becomes evident when he attempts to answer questions from an informed public.

Putting him back in the office of the AG will be a victory for the apathetic and ignorant.

Jamesaust 11 years, 1 month ago

A surprisingly good piece.

The only point I would emphasize more is this: the only thing that Kline has clearly done well at in his political life came from his legislative years 1992-2000. There, Kline was well-known for his insistence on anti-tax, anti-spending policies. It is those policies - a constant need to cut taxes before every election ad infinitum - that one might fairly say caused (at least half) of the prison release program that Kline now attacks.

Kline is far too smart to not recognize this but was not willing - now or then - to educate his flock on the realities of number theory: government costs money and if they want to keep people in prison in larger numbers and for long terms, that will cost even more money from their own pockets.

But then, its General Kline who is actually on the record answering the question whether it would ever be okay to lie as AG as "I can't answer that." That's okay though as Kline's claims provide all of us the answer.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

IMHO, being an attorney and not ever lying are mutually exclusive.

Baille 11 years, 1 month ago

That is a sad commentary on the perception of our legal system.

Attorneys, as far as I know, are in the only profession that requires its members to be honest and above-board in discharging their professional duties. Attorneys are ethically bound and can be disciplined for lying. Not cheating, stealing, committing fraud - but simply lying. This discipline can and does include losing their license to practice their profession.

I can't think of any other profession that operates under as tight of constraints as the legal system. Can you?

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

Baille, I meant no offense. But I hope that if I need an attorney to represent me in a tough negotiation, or for defense, that he or she can pull off a good bluff.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

What about the defense attorneys who claim to a jury that their defendants are innocent, when they know they are not? When an attorney pleads innocence for a person charged with a crime, even when the person was found, red-handed at the scene, and admitted guilt? How can that not be called a lie?

bert 11 years, 1 month ago

we could ask the question, are we less safe because of sb323? the answer is no. i am quite familiar with this bill and its ramifications. question two, are we less safe because of the tax cuts that have removed the programs from the prisons? YOU BETCHA! morrison didn't make that law. he just helped draft it. the majority of the legislature thought it was ok. the governor signed it. of course, philllll knows better. i hope y'all vote.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

Considering that legislators often cast votes on bills they have not read, I would hold the person who drafted it responsible for its content and consequences.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

Funny how politicians take credit for drafting a bill that is seen as a positive for the community, while they deny responsibility for a bill that has negative consequences.

oldgoof 11 years, 1 month ago

Godot: "I would hold the person who drafted it responsible for its content and consequences"

I really can't believe anyone would actually say this. It shows a total lack of knoweldge of the system.

The policies contained in 323 (by the way Godot: it was not one person drafting a proposal, but an entire commission, with additional professional drafting staff) drafting the proposal in the general direction and manner the legislature wanted.

No legislator can say "I didn't understand" or "I didn't have time to research" on this one. There was lots of committee in party caucuses and on the floor and lots of written 'bill summaries' (explantions) on this bill, for the exact same reason we are discussing it today....legislators were nervous for being hit over the head voting for what ultimately was the right thing to do.

Aust and Bert's posts are also totally correct here. It is pure sophistry to vote FOR higher costs of government (sentencing) at every chance then vote AGAINST properly funding those budget needs, as Phill was well known for on this and many other issues.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

Sorry, oldgoof, I hold the firm belief that our legislators and congresspersons do not have the time, nor the inclination, to fully comprehend the bills they vote on. They rely on the "experts" to advise them (much as the city commission relies on consultants and such), and provide them with an executive summary. They then vote according to their conscience, or pressure from lobbyists, or contributors, or colleagues, or reaction from constituents, or some combination thereof.

For Morris to deny responsiblity for a bill that he helped draft in his role as a member of a committee of "experts" is ludicrous.

Morris' recommendation was a supposed solution to a problem created by a reduction in funding; the fact that, at that time, the Kansas economy was sinking, and tax revenues were shrinking, is a reality. Lack of funding had to be faced. Morris needs to accept responsibility for proposing a flawed solution for dealing with budget cuts, one that reduced the supervision and retention of dangerous criminals in Kansas.

oldgoof 11 years, 1 month ago

Sorry, Godot, shop your firm beliefs around elected officials, and they will tell you how wrong you are. I didn't say that Kline had to read every word of the law....and he 'was' fully apprised by professionals of what was in the bill. Members of the revisors office, legislative research staff, professional members of the dept of corrections and sentencing commission.

I don't minimize Morrisons role in helping others create this first draft, but you totallly forget that was on the start of the process. And once the legislative process starts, Morrison had no role other than to explain with his fellow commissioners what there recommendations were.

The legislature, through the process had, and did amend this initial SB 323 draft.... without any ability by Morrison to affect those amendments.... through the normal process.

This is not even a close argument, Godot.

And we can later discuss the role of the economy vs the tax cuts Phill Kline supported to create this crises some other time, because I fear you are probably operating on incorrect information there too.

Baille 11 years, 1 month ago

"What about the defense attorneys who claim to a jury that their defendants are innocent, when they know they are not? When an attorney pleads innocence for a person charged with a crime, even when the person was found, red-handed at the scene, and admitted guilt? How can that not be called a lie?"

They don't plead their client "innocent." They plead them "not guilty." The basis for this may well be that the prosecution can not prove the case or it may be that the attorney honestly believes thier client to be innocent of the charges; however, in any argument, the attorney can not represent a fact as true when they know the fact to be false.

I guess my first post came across as a bit defensive and I apologize for that. I did not so much take offense with your comments as seek to point out what seems to be a common misperception about attorneys. While an attorney certainly can bluff they can not do so by asserting facts they know or reasonably should know are not true. A good attorney does not function by being dishonest. Uou lie to opposing counsel once and they will never, ever forget. You lie to the court and you get into some big trouble very quickly.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.