Editorial: Reverse law on speedy trials

Cutting the legal deadline back to 90 days instead of 150 would be more fair and also less costly.

Local lawmakers can help Douglas County this session by seeking to reverse a three-year-old law that lengthened the speedy trial deadline in Kansas from 90 to 150 days.

Not only is the law unfair to defendants, it is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The change — which was rolled into a 2014 bill dealing with issues ranging from disclosure of probable cause affidavits to elder abuse — has proved especially expensive for Douglas County, whose jail population has spiked dramatically since the law took effect.

At last week’s Lawrence chamber of commerce Legislative Priorities Breakfast, County Commissioner Nancy Thellman asked legislators to look at changing the law.

“This year we expect to spend nearly $1.5 million housing our inmates out of county,” Thellman said. “This outsourcing comes at great cost to the taxpayer, yes, but even greater cost to the inmate who is far away from their family, far away from their lawyer and absent from Douglas County’s re-entry services.”

In addition, the county is expected to ask voters for a tax increase later this year to pay for a $44 million jail expansion that would add 179 beds to the 186-bed jail. The tax also would fund about $6 million per year in additional staff at the jail.

But if the Legislature hadn’t lengthened the speedy trial deadline by 60 days, would the scope of the project need to be as large and as expensive as it is?

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 has a direct impact on the jail population.

Douglas County Jail statistics bear this out. 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.

In advocating for the speedy trial change in 2014, Attorney General Derek Schmidt wrote that the change was “a justified and reasonable effort to ease the difficulty in getting criminal cases to trial on time in an era of heavily congested court dockets.”

But instead of easing the pressure on the docket, the deadline changes appears to have simply lengthened the time that it takes cases to go to trial, leaving defendants in jail for longer periods with taxpayers footing the bill.

Restoring the speedy trial deadline to 90 days is one of the quickest ways to address crowding not only at the Douglas County Jail but at others around the state. It’s time to admit that lengthening the deadline has not been good for anyone involved — not defendants and certainly not taxpayers.