Crime bill rears its head as race heats up

Kline and Morrison disagree on SB323

? 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.

“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.