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Hundreds of ‘old law’ Kansas inmates serving longer sentences

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 16, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.

Rick Redford will go before the Kansas Prisoner Review Board this month after serving more than 27 years in prison. Had he been sentenced under today’s laws, he probably would have been released years ago.

“Here I am doing 27 years just to see the parole board,” Redford said in a telephone interview from the Norton Correctional Facility. “Had I been convicted in 1993, I would have been out in 2005 without even seeing a parole board.”

Redford, whose most serious conviction was for aggravated kidnapping, is one of hundreds of Kansas prison inmates serving sentences for crimes committed before July 1, 1993, the day the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines took effect. Many of these “old law” inmates are serving sentences that would have been much shorter under today’s law.

“I’m on my 26th year right now,” said Sherman Wright, who figures he would have been released after 15 years had he been sentenced under the guidelines as they became law in 1993. Instead he’s serving a 69-year-to-life sentence on burglary and aggravated robbery convictions that will keep him in prison at least until 2024.

Wright’s sister, Cynthia Crawford, said her brother’s crimes were relatively minor compared with those committed by some of his fellow inmates.

“He never used any kind of a weapon; he never hurt anybody,” she said. “I don’t understand how they can let him sit in there and rot like that when people keep going in for killing or raping kids and getting right back out.

“I know that hurts him to see people come and go, come and go, for crimes that were way past his.”

Sentencing Guidelines Act

The 1992 Sentencing Guidelines Act, which was designed to eliminate racial and geographical disparities in sentencing, established a sentencing system based on the type of crime committed and the defendant’s previous criminal history. The guidelines generally called for shorter sentences for property crimes and longer ones for crimes of violence.

The Kansas Legislature decided to apply the guidelines retroactively to more than 2,000 inmates who were serving time for relatively minor offenses. But more than 4,000 inmates convicted of more serious crimes were left to serve out their original sentences. Many of those inmates had more than one conviction and were serving multiple sentences consecutively. Some who had prior convictions saw their sentences doubled or even tripled under what was known as the Habitual Criminal Act.

The sentencing guidelines law in effect created two classes of prison inmates, but the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that it did not violate any inmate’s right to equal protection of the law, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Today, about 400 of those “old law” inmates remain behind bars.

Defense lawyer Richard Ney said the biggest difference between the old and new sentencing laws was in the sentence structure. Under the old law, defendants were given a sentencing range — five to 20 years for aggravated robbery, perhaps, or 15 years to life for rape. The Kansas Parole Board, which has since been abolished, decided when most inmates would be released.

Under the new guidelines, defendants receive specific sentences. A defendant with no prior convictions who is convicted of rape can expect to serve 12 years and 10 months in prison. A person with three prior convictions for serious crimes can expect to serve about 15.5 years for aggravated robbery.

Redford’s case

Redford, now 55, grew up in Hutchinson and was arrested in May 1986, after a 22-year-old woman told authorities she had been held captive by Redford and two other people for two weeks in an Ellsworth County farmhouse. She said she was raped and beaten by her captors before escaping when she was left alone at a west Wichita restaurant. The woman told authorities that Redford kidnapped her because he mistakenly thought she had stolen $11,000 in drug money.

Redford has always denied the charge. One of his co-defendants testified at his trial that the victim went voluntarily to Ellsworth after she had an argument with an old boyfriend, and after the boyfriend went to her parents’ home and accused her of being a drug addict and prostitute.

Redford never denied being a drug dealer.

“Was I a drug dealer? Yes,” he said. “I did it for years.”

Redford, who was convicted of six felony charges, was sentenced to life plus 25 years in prison. This is his first bid for parole.

At his parole hearing on June 28, Redford said he will tell the same story to the Prisoner Review Board if asked. In a written application for parole, Redford cites a dozen inmates with crimes at least as serious as his who already have been released.

Among them is Thomas Bird, a former Emporia minister who killed his wife in 1983 and was involved in the murder of the husband of his church secretary. Bird was paroled in 2004 after serving 20 years in prison for convictions of first-degree murder and solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

Wright’s case

Unlike Redford, Wright admits he committed the crimes that landed him in prison serving a sentenced imposed under the old law.

Now 48, he said a jury convicted him of three robberies, one of which involved a retired court official. He said there were three factors working against him when he got to court.

“One — I was young and didn’t understand anything,” he said. “Two — I wouldn’t tell who the participants in the case were, and the DA got real perturbed about that. The third is that one of the victims was a bailiff, and they wanted to make example out of me.”

He turned down a plea bargain that might have resulted in a shorter sentence.

“I took it to trial,” he said. “I thought I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t listening to nobody.”

Ney said the “old law” rules apply to ex-convicts even after they are released on parole.

“If you have an old sentence, it’s a whole different issue” if you violate parole, he said.

For those sentenced for crimes that occurred after July 1, 1993, a parole revocation means a trip back to prison for 180 days — a term that is usually reduced to 90 days for good behavior. For crimes that occurred before the guidelines took effect, the penalty can be much more severe,

Ed Neer, 50, is an “old law” inmate who was sentenced in 1987 to 15 years to life for aggravated sodomy and indecent liberties with a child. He was paroled in 2003 after serving 17.5 years. He said the crimes involved a stepdaughter and the daughter of a girlfriend.

Neer’s parole was revoked in September 2009, he said, when he violated a no-contact court order involving his son’s mother. He has been in prison ever since. He had a parole hearing in April, but was told he would have to serve at least 12 more months in prison before being released.

“It’s a little discouraging,” he said.

There are no efforts under way to convert pre-1993 sentences make them coincide with current sentencing laws.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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