Although the benefits of such a move were debatable, Gov. Sam Brownback decided Friday to call a special session of the Kansas Legislature to revise the state’s “Hard 50” law.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt had asked the governor to call a special session to allow lawmakers to fix the statute that allows Kansas judges to sentence people convicted of premeditated murder to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. The constitutionality of the state law was called into question when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month in a Virginia case that a Hard 50 sentence can’t be determined by a judge; the aggravating factors that could justify such a sentence must be considered by a jury.
Schmidt garnered support for his request from a number of prosecutors in the state’s largest counties and, on Friday, the support of Brownback who agreed with Schmidt’s contention that “time is of the essence” in revising the law.
Schmidt says his office already is drafting a new law that would make changes he hopes will be retroactive to cover Hard 50 sentences already made under the flawed law. Taking quick action on the matter, he said, will give prosecutors the best chance of preserving the tougher sentences. However, he acknowledged, “There is never a guarantee in the criminal justice system.”
Disagreement remains among attorneys about how important it is to fix the Hard 50 law in September rather than waiting until January. A Wichita defense attorney points out that even if sentences are overturned on appeal for a few criminals currently serving a Hard 50 term, the alternate sentence is life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. If the nature of the crime was heinous enough to justify a Hard 50 sentence in the first place, he said, it would be unlikely that a parole-granting board would release an inmate after 25 years.
The state estimates that the special session to change the law will cost between $35,000 and $40,000, but that’s if legislators return to Topeka for one day, pass a new law and go home. If that isn’t the case, taxpayers also will be paying $35,000 to $40,000 for every subsequent day lawmakers stay in Topeka to discuss the Hard 50 law or any other issue they want to consider.
The Supreme Court ruling that undermines the state law was handed down just three days before the Kansas Legislature finally adjourned on June 20. It’s too bad lawmakers weren’t able to recognize and deal with the situation before they left town. There were valid questions about whether the benefit of bringing them back to Topeka to consider revisions to the Hard 50 law justified what should be a very rare decision to call a special legislative session.
Those questions are now moot. The special session has been called for Sept. 3, and, for the sake of Kansas taxpayers, the governor and legislative leaders should make sure it both begins and ends on that day.