Kansas ‘hard 50’ law outcome in dispute

Kansas Capitol drawingFrom the office of Kansas Senate Vice President Jeff King. The article referenced is available at Killers could get shorter sentences under new Hard 50 law.

September 11, 2013

Dear Editor:

The recent Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star article titled “Killers could get shorter sentences under the new Hard 50 law” was so misleading and contained so many factual errors that we feel compelled to respond.

The crux of our concern is simple. The story has incorrectly turned the law on its head and misinformed Kansans about this important public safety issue. The new procedural changes to the Hard 50 law were adopted precisely to prevent killers from receiving shorter sentences. They cannot and will not reduce the sentences served by our state’s most heinous murderers.

The possibility of shortened minimum prison sentences was created by the United States Supreme Court decision in Alleyne v. United States, not by the new Kansas statute. Alleyne held that any fact used to impose a mandatory minimum sentence must be found by a jury not a judge. In Kansas, a judge previously made the factual findings underlying the “Hard 50” sentence, a mandatory 50-year minimum sentence imposed on those convicted of premeditated murder when specific aggravating factors exist.

The gauntlet thrown down by the Supreme Court in Alleyne was clear. Failure to amend the “Hard 50” law to allow a jury to find aggravating facts would potentially cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for dozens of Kansas murders.

The response was swift and unanimous. At the request of Attorney General Schmidt, Governor Brownback called a special session to fix the Hard 50 law. Kansas prosecutors, with bipartisan legislative input, drafted a new procedure to keep mandatory 50-year prison sentences for those already convicted of especially heinous murders, while preserving the Hard 50 for future criminals. Legislators, in one of the shortest special sessions in Kansas history, unanimously passed this new law.

Will the new Hard 50 law be challenged in court? Of course. Criminal defense attorneys will vigorously turn over every possible stone to lower the sentences served by their clients. The new legislation is not the cause of these court challenges. Rather, it is our best effort to withstand them and prevent the shortening of killers’ prison terms. Contrary to the false assertions by the Eagle and the Star, the new law does not give killers a chance to seek shorter sentences – the United States Supreme Court did that. Instead, the new law gives the State of Kansas a fighting chance to prevent that outcome.

Most importantly, the new Hard 50 law provides certainty for victims’ families. They deserve to know that fifty years in prison means fifty years without any possibility for parole or other release. After their incredible suffering, we owe them that reassurance.

The new Hard 50 legislation is the best possible solution to achieve that certainty. The Eagle and Star articles inaccurately confuse the cure with the disease. As Democrats and Republicans, prosecutors and legislators, we all agree that the new Hard 50 law provides the best chance to keep heinous killers incarcerated for at least 50 years.

Respectfully submitted,

Representative Lance Kinzer
Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee

Representative Jan Pauls
Ranking Minority of the House Judiciary Committee

Senator David Haley
Ranking Minority of the Senate Judiciary Committee

Senator Jeff King
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee

Derek Schmidt
Kansas Attorney General

Jerry Gorman
Wyandotte County District Attorney

Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County District Attorney

Steve Howe
Johnson County District Attorney