Kansas Sentencing Guidelines ( .PDF )
North Lawrence wants answers from the criminal justice system.
Police, prosecutors, and lawmakers are hearing from residents there who say they are sick and tired of living with people they call career criminals who are responsible for an ongoing problem of thefts in the neighborhood.
Local officials have explained that the county courts no longer have control over sentencing criminals, and advised the residents to report all thefts to the police. But neighborhood leaders remain unsatisfied and plan to take their complaints to the Legislature.
For years, residents say, they have seen antiques stolen from their front yards, car batteries swiped from their vehicles and other thefts, all perpetrated, they say, by a small number of people who seem to always be going in and out of a revolving door at the Douglas County Jail.
After first discussing the issue with police and city officials last month, North Lawrence’s neighborhood association held a special meeting last week to talk with Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson. He wasn't able to provide any easy answers.
“It was kind of a letdown,” Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said after the meeting with Branson. “What happened to ‘three strikes and you’re out’?”
Law & Order
The neighborhood group called its first special meeting in May, presenting the issue to city commissioners, a Lawrence Police Department captain and an officer who patrols the area regularly. One problem they discovered was that many of the thefts had never been reported to police. Boyle said that was one aspect of the problem that the residents could address directly. “The police can’t solve a crime if they don’t know of the crime,” he said.
But residents said police had already arrested and jailed some individuals in connection with the thefts. The real problem, residents said, was that these people seemed to get out of jail immediately and return to the neighborhood to steal again.
Police said that was beyond their control. To know what happens to a suspected thief after they’ve been arrested, they said, the residents would have to see the district attorney.
So they did.
The sentencing grid
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson met with about 50 members of the neighborhood group in a second special meeting, on June 19. The county’s top prosecutor started off the two-hour meeting by explaining some of the basics: misdemeanors and felonies, due process and other legal matters. But Branson said he knew what the people really wanted to hear: “How come these guys are still out running around?”
The short answer: that’s the law.
The state Legislature dictates what sentences are handed down to convicts, and judges can only follow those guidelines. Branson passed out copies of the state sentencing grid to the residents at the meeting to show that a sentence is determined by matching the severity level of the offense to the offender’s criminal history. A judge usually can only adjust a sentence up or down by a fraction.
The thefts the residents had experienced outside their homes — the disappearances of car batteries, copper wire and small appliances — were, at most, level-nine felonies, according to the grid, which put them near the bottom of the scale, Branson said.
Those offenses nearly always mean probation, not prison, unless the offender has a violent crime on their criminal record or they are convicted again while they are still on probation.
Otherwise, even if a person is convicted of theft three, four or five times, he will remain free, Branson said. While the sentencing grid generally tends to impose tougher sentences for repeat offenses, it is not built to send people to prison for low-level thefts.
So when does someone actually serve time for stealing from their neighbors again and again?
“The problem is, never,” Branson said. “That is the really frustrating part.”
It’s no fault of law enforcement or prosecutors, Branson said, and no fault of the judges, who are bound by the sentencing laws.
At least some of the residents at the meeting did not like that answer.
Boyle, president of the neighborhood association, said the group will press on and hold a third meeting, this time inviting legislators from the area to talk about how the state's sentencing laws are made.
But if the residents are asking that more low-level offenders be sent to prison, it is likely they will once again be faced with difficult facts.
The Kansas Department of Corrections, for its part, has said it is in the middle of an overpopulation crisis, with 9,000 people in Kansas prisons. Corrections officials are trying to lock up fewer people, not more. The Legislature recently tried to cut the state's prison budget, a move vetoed by Governor Brownback on June 15.
The good news, Boyle said, is that residents have seen fewer thefts in the neighborhood lately. He said the most active thieves, under the alert eyes of the neighborhood watch group, “probably went to the other side of town.”
Boyle said the group hasn't set a date for its next meeting, and doesn't yet know who will be invited. But he and other residents are looking forward to talking with some of their elected representatives in Topeka.
“We’re going to let them know what we think about these sentencing guidelines,” Boyle said. “They got some unhappy constituents.”