Readers are often surprised by sentences handed down by judges in Douglas County District Court. In fact, those sentences are largely predetermined by state law. Judges must decide sentences between narrow guidelines created by the Legislature.
Here's a guide to how the law determines who gets probation, who goes to prison, and for how long:
State sentencing laws
When a defendant is found guilty in court, a Kansas judge must pass a sentence according to a worksheet, or grid, created by the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act. The law took effect in 1992, and is designed so that defendants with similar offenses and criminal histories be treated alike.
The guidelines take the form of a grid, or worksheet, that governs felony offenses.
Kansas Sentencing Guidelines ( .PDF )
Severity of offense and criminal history
All felonies are categorized by level of severity on a range of 1 (most severe violent crimes) to 10 (less severe property crimes).
Criminal histories are categorized according to how many offenses the defendant has already been convicted of. Defendants may fall in one of nine categories, from the worst, with three or more person felonies, to the least, with one misdemeanor no criminal record at all
A defendant convicted of aggravated assault is on the grid for a severity-level seven offense. This means that, depending on their criminal history, they could receive a maximum of 34 months in prison or a minimum of 24 months on probation.
If that defendant has already been convicted of two person felonies, they would fall in the second-highest criminal history category. That would be the seventh row on the chart.
By matching the level-seven felony (aggravated assault) to the second column in criminal history, the defendant lands in a box containing three possible sentences: 31 months, 29 months, or 27 months. The judge can choose between the three according to the aggravating or mitigating factors in the specific case.
Variations and exceptions in sentencing guidelines
State law created two grids of sentencing guidelines. One controls drug offenses, while the other controls non-drug offenses. Both work according to the same logic.
The grid is divided into boxes, with each containing maximum and minimum sentences, calculated in months. Boxes in the lower range of severity levels and criminal histories (shaded green on the grid) indicate probation sentences. Boxes in the upper range (yellow on the grid) indicate prison sentences.
There are also border areas between the prison and probation sections of the sentencing grid. Defendants who fall in these border boxes (blue) may be sentenced to either prison or probation according to the judge's ruling on the facts in the case.
The state of Kansas mandates that offenders serve at least 80 percent of their sentence, with the possibility of 15 or 20 percent reductions for good behavior, depending on the type of offense.
Rules governing special cases
Because real life is rarely as simple as the formula described above, the sentencing guidelines contain several special rules to govern particular situations.
For example, a felony committed while a defendant is on probation may trigger more severe sentences. And some types of violent crimes are not controlled by the sentencing grid at all. First-degree murder is an "off-grid" offense that requires a prison sentence of 25 years to life.
It is possible for a judge to depart from the guidelines and switch a sentence from prison to probation, or vice versa. To do so, the judge must make specific findings, based on evidence presented in court, as described by the law.
For more on sentencing guidelines, see the full-text manual updated by the Kansas Sentencing Commission in 2011.