Crime & Courts

Soda thief, jail ministry and ACLU ask Supreme Court to order prosecutor to do his job

A soda thief, a jail ministry and a civil rights group are asking the Kansas Supreme Court to order a county attorney to follow state laws designed to divert minor offenders from jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a petitioned Friday for a "writ of mandamus" against Larry Markle, county attorney and chief prosecutor in Montgomery County. Mandamus actions are brought to force government agents to perform their official duties as required by law.

The ACLU is representing the Kansas Crossroads Foundation, a nonprofit ministry that provides counseling to drug offenders; and Karena Wilson, a Montgomery County teenager who was prosecuted for breaking into a soda machine.

According to his office, Markle was attending a conference Friday and would be unavailable for comment until next week.

The petition seeks a court order requiring Markle to inform offenders that the state provides the option of diversion in minor criminal cases.

Through diversion, a person who commits a minor crime can get the charges dismissed if they pay a small fee and keep a clean record for a specified period of time.

The Crossroads Foundation alleges that the lack of a working diversion program in Montgomery County unnecessarily puts strain on the group's drug-treatment services.

"KCF often must divert time and resources away from other rehabilitation services to help low-level offenders manage their lives post-release," the lawsuit says. "KCF provides room and board to individuals who no longer have stable housing because of their time in jail.

"Moreover, KCF spends significant time and money transporting clients to and from Fredonia and Independence to attend meetings with parole officers and undergo court mandated drug testing."

The petition alleges that Wilson, 19, wasn't informed of her option to apply for diversion after she was arrested rifling a pop machine last June.

Instead, she was prosecuted, pleaded guilty to three counts of misdemeanor theft, and is serving a year of probation.

"Ms. Wilson is required to pay a fine of more than $2,000 which she has struggled to afford despite having a job," the petition says. "Ms. Wilson has no prior convictions, and . . . likely would have been eligible to apply for diversion in Montgomery County."

The petition specifically asks the Supreme Court to order Markle to draft a policy outlining the diversion program and distribute the information to offenders who may be eligible.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas