Feb 18, 2020 10:13 PM

Kan. tracks ex-convicts like no other state, but has it gone too far?

Posted Feb 18, 2020 10:13 PM
A state website shows all the registered offenders within one mile of the Kansas Statehouse. Screenshot from the Kansas Bureau of Investigations' website
A state website shows all the registered offenders within one mile of the Kansas Statehouse. Screenshot from the Kansas Bureau of Investigations' website

By STEPHEN KORANDA
Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — Kansas is unmatched in its tracking of ex-convicts, resulting in more than 21,000 people convicted of sex, drug or violent crimes being registered on a public database.

One of them is Marc Schultz, who was convicted of manslaughter for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving drunk in 2010.

“I will forever live with the burden of taking a man’s life for a decision that I made,” Schultz said Monday. “But I didn’t intend for this to happen.”

He wants lawmakers to amend Kansas’ registry rules, and a committee forwarded two bills Monday to the full House. The legislation would scale back penalties that have grown in recent years — serious felonies and additional prison time can follow something as minor as not registering a new Instagram account or getting a new tattoo. Some people wouldn’t stay on the registry as long, either.

“I think we’ve moved closer to what’s done nationally,” Republican Rep. Russ Jennings said. He’s the chair of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “There’s no evidence that suggests it provides for greater public safety. Most of it's anecdotal.”

Schultz said he didn’t intentionally commit a violent crime, but still must register for 15 years as a violent offender. He said the registry is a “scarlet letter” that makes it harder to find work. Plus, he said, filling the list with too many offenders is making it less useful for the public.

“When people look at that map they don’t know the difference between the dots that they see,” he said.

Jennifer Roth, co-chair of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told lawmakers earlier this month that it’s time to back off the rules.

“We’re talking about people getting charged for things that are minor,” Roth said. “It doesn’t matter if something is minor or something is major. It’s all treated the same.”

The details

One of the bills would reduce some penalties for not registering properly. It would also take longer to rack up additional violations, going from the current 30 days to 90 days. And courts could waive the $20 registration fee for people who can’t afford them.

Another bill would impact some of the more than 4,100 people on the drug-crime registry. Those who are convicted of crimes like distribution would face a five-year registration term instead of the current 15 years.

Roth said the penalties for not updating registrations should be reduced because the current felony charges are too severe.

“That’s the same as aggravated arson or an involuntary manslaughter or an aggravated robbery,” she said. “That makes no sense.”

State officials say the changes would have a quick effect on the state’s prison system, which has been stretched to the point that hundreds of inmates were recently shipped to Arizona. They estimate there’d be 130 fewer people in prison by 2030.

Law enforcement opposed these changes, though. Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, representing the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, opposed the original plan to make some drug registries unavailable to the public.

“Shouldn’t citizens be allowed to know that a convicted drug dealer has moved into their neighborhood?” Easter said in testimony.

The committee amended the bill so the drug convictions would stay on the public registry.

Still, Easter said, some registration rules do need to be changed. He said there should be a way to reduce the time someone is on the registry if they are complying with the rules.

“There needs to be some type of exit strategy,” he said. “How do we get them off of the offender registry quicker?”

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.

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Feb 18, 2020 10:13 PM
 Kan. Medicaid expansion blocked — lawmakers considering 'nuclear option'
Medicaid expansion advocates attend a rally last month at the Kansas Statehouse. Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

By STEPHEN KORANDA, Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — The Kansas legislative session began with what seemed like a done deal for expanding Medicaid. Gov. Laura Kelly and a top Republican senator had forged a compromise to offer health coverage for up to 130,000 low-income Kansans.

About a month later, the deal has ground to a halt — and even the state budget could be held up — because of abortion politics. Medicaid supporters are irritated. Moderate Republicans and Democrats are ready to fight back with delays. And abortion opponents haven’t budged.

“I’m pretty frustrated,” said Republican Sen. Randall Hardy, who supports expanding Medicaid. “I’m willing to consider almost anything at this point.”

The strategy of holding up the Legislature to get Medicaid expansion is a risky play, Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said. It could anger voters if the delay drags on to the point that important services like roads and law enforcement aren’t funded.

“This is the nuclear option,” Beatty said, “because the last thing voters, constituents and even legislators want is for the Legislature to not be able to do anything, including funding programs that everybody agrees should be funded.”

The Senate already passed the proposed constitutional amendment on abortion, which would overturn a court ruling that said the state constitution gurantees women a right to the procedure. But the House narrowly rejected it on Feb. 7.

That led the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life to call for blocking Medicaid expansion until the amendment is on a ballot, something Republican Senate President Susan Wagle has promised will happen.

Abortion opponents say the delay is necessary, fearing that the court ruling on abortion rights could lead to state money being used for abortions through an expanded Medicaid program.

“If we want to be able to protect human life and protect the citizens of Kansas from being forced to fund abortions through Medicaid, then this is just a position that we have to take,” Kansans For Life’s Director of Government Relations Jeanne Gawdun said earlier this month.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, the Republican who helped draft the Medicaid compromise, is pushing back, saying state funding would not go to abortion due to federal law.

Last year, Democrats and moderate Republicans tried holding up the budget in the House to get Medicaid expansion, but ultimately didn’t have enough votes. The top Democrat in the House said expansion is such a high priority this year that they’re willing to try again if needed.

“We will keep discussing it with them to get that leverage,” House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer said.

Since Republicans hold strong majorities in both chambers, Democrats would need to attract a healthy number of Republicans like Hardy if they hope to successfully block any bills.

Meanwhile, Medicaid supporters held a rally last week, shouting their disapproval of the whole situation inside the Statehouse.

“There’s been one delay after another,” Alliance for a Healthy Kansas Executive Director April Holman said, “with no end in sight.”

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.