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Kansas legislative panel on Hard 50 sets meeting

  • Associated Press
  • Published Wednesday, August 7, 2013, at 9:47 p.m.

A special legislative committee formed in Kansas to consider proposals for fixing the state’s “Hard 50” criminal sentencing law will meet the week before lawmakers convene a special session to draft its recommendations, the panel’s chairman said Wednesday.

Chairman and state Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said the committee’s eight House members and six senators will convene Aug. 26 to review proposed legislation on the “Hard 50” law from Attorney General Derek Schmidt. The statute allows judges to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June raised questions about its constitutionality.

Kinzer said he plans to have a hearing on the GOP attorney general’s legislation but will consider amendments from committee members, seeking to ensure that the “Hard 50” sentence still can apply in pending first-degree murder cases. Kinzer said he hopes the panel will finish in a single day.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback called the GOP-dominated Legislature’s special session for Sept. 3, issuing a proclamation calling on legislators to approve a “Hard 50” fix within three days. Schmidt had urged the governor to summon lawmakers back to Topeka, but the move had bipartisan support from legislators and prosecutors and the strong backing of law enforcement groups.

“My game plan is to take the attorney general’s proposal as a starting point,” Kinzer said. “I’m going to try to have that as close as possible to perfect as far as the committee is concerned.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Virginia case that juries, not judges, must determine whether the facts in a criminal case warrant a mandatory minimum sentence. In Kansas, judges have considered whether aggravating factors in cases of premeditated, first-degree murder – whether a defendant shot into a crowd or tortured a victim, for example – warrant the “Hard 50” rather than life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years.

Schmidt has said his office is working with prosecutors on a proposal, and Kinzer said he hopes the attorney general’s measure will be made public ahead of the committee’s meeting.

“We should be able to pretty quickly craft a fix,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, and a member of the joint committee.

Schmidt has identified about two dozen murder cases that could be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but defense attorneys have noted that even if the convicted offenders don’t receive the “Hard 50,” they'll still spend years behind bars – with no immediate danger of their release.

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