Kansas lawmakers to consider bill shortening speedy trial time

? A Kansas House committee will hear testimony Monday on a bill being requested by Douglas County officials that would shorten the state’s “speedy trial” time limit down to 90 days instead of the current 150 days.

Rep. Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, the ranking Democrat on the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said the bill is intended to address Douglas County’s persistent jail overcrowding problem, even though some people believe the change might have little impact.

“I think the county still wants to move forward with it because they think it can reduce their jail population,” Highberger said in an interview Friday.

Both the U.S. and Kansas constitutions guarantee criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. Those provisions are intended both to prevent people from being detained for unreasonable lengths of time without a trial and to prevent delays in dispensing justice.

But neither document offers a clear definition of what constitutes a speedy trial. Instead, they leave that to legislative bodies to define.

For many years in Kansas, the time limit was 90 days, but lawmakers changed that in 2014 to 150 days, largely for the benefit of small counties that have only one prosecutor handling multiple cases at a time.

In Douglas County, though, law enforcement officials say the extended time limit, compounded by a rising crime rate, is contributing to jail overcrowding as more and more inmates are coming into the jail and staying there for longer periods of time while awaiting trial.

The inmate population at the jail has exceeded its 186-bed capacity every month since June 2015, the year after the longer speedy-trial standard took effect, according to Douglas County Sheriff’s Office annual reports.

Even Highberger, however, says reducing the time limit may have little effect because courts can grant extensions of time, especially at the defendant’s request.

“If you talk to the district attorney (Charles Branson), it may not have much (effect) because most continuances are requested by defendants at this point, and he says he’s getting most of his cases in by the 90-day limit,” Highberger said.

However, many defendants facing felony charges spend more than 12 months in the Douglas County Jail awaiting trials, according to county records.

Those lengthy stays also come at a steep cost to the county. Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said it costs the county, on average, about $186 per day to house an inmate in the jail, a figure she described as a conservative estimate because it does not include such things as the cost of employee benefits for jail staff or the cost of property and liability insurance.

But shortening the speedy trial limit also could result in other, sometimes less tangible, costs, such as increasing caseloads for judges.

“It will potentially increase that. I have not gotten any feedback from our local judges on this,” Highberger said.

In addition, the American Bar Association’s standards for a speedy trial state that, to the extent practicable, “the trial of criminal cases should be given preference over civil cases.”

That could result in longer delays for cases involving debt collections and other kinds of lawsuits.

The hearing on the bill is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Statehouse.