Editorial: Re-examine speedy trials

Defining the speedy trial window as 150 instead of 90 days was a mistake that contributes to jail overcrowding and unfairness.

A bill that would return the definition of a speedy trial back to 90 days, instead of 150, would be fairer to defendants, ease pressures on the Douglas County Jail and saves taxpayers’ money.

The bill, House Bill 2535, is sponsored by state Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence.

Current law says defendants have a right to a trial within 150 days of being charged. That limit was 90 days until 2014, when Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt sought the expansion to 150 days. Law enforcement and prosecutors supported the change. The only group to speak against the change was the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Because a majority of the inmates in the Douglas County Jail are awaiting trial in state court, the length of time that it takes for a case to go to trial can have a direct impact on the jail population.

Douglas County Jail statistics show this to be the case. In 2013, the year before the speedy trial change, the average daily population at the jail was 138 and the average stay was 7.58 days. By 2016, the average stay had nearly doubled to 15.3 days and the average daily population was up a whopping 73 percent to 239 inmates. And the spike in jail population from 2013 to 2016 happened despite an 11 percent decrease in jail bookings, from 5,997 to 5,329.

The county now spends more than $1 million per year to house inmates in other area jails because of crowding at the Douglas County facility. The county also is seeking a sales tax increase to pay for a $44 million jail expansion and the hiring of new corrections officers.

County officials have cited the 2014 speedy trial law change as a significant factor in current crowding at the jail.

Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said it costs the county about $186 per day to house an inmate in the jail. At that rate, the additional cost of holding an inmate for 150 days instead of 90 is $11,160.

Some argue that changing the law back won’t have a significant impact, that many defendants seek an extension beyond the speedy trial date. District Attorney Charles Branson said many of the cases are getting resolved in fewer than 90 days.

Still, it’s hard to argue with data that shows such a direct and dramatic change in the jail population since the change was implemented.

Even if the 150-day speedy trial wasn’t costing Douglas County taxpayers millions, changing it back to 90 days would be the right thing to do on behalf of defendants. Lawmakers should approve House Bill 2535.