Crime & Courts

Kansas Supreme Court calls for a study of jail stays before trial

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The Kansas Supreme Court has formed a task force to “take a closer look” at how the state’s district courts handle criminal defendants before they go to trial, a news release from the court said.

The task force will make recommendations on what to do with people who are arrested and accused of a crime before they go to trial.

“Every day Kansas judges decide whether to detain criminal defendants and under what circumstances,” Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said in the release. “These decisions are made amid a national discussion about alternatives to pretrial detention and the need to ensure no person is unnecessarily deprived of his or her liberty.”

The move by the Supreme Court comes as a battle over bail plays out in California between criminal justice reformers and bail-bond companies over Senate Bill 10. The bill, which abolished the cash-bail system in California, was signed into state law by Gov. Jerry Brown in August.

In most states, judges assign bond amounts for defendants. If they post bail, they are released before trial. If they don’t, they stay in jail.

The bail amount is supposed to make sure the defendant shows up for trial. If the defendant doesn’t show up for court, the court keeps the money. If defendants show up to court for trial, the bail money is returned. Bail-bonds companies typically keep a percentage of the bail.

Under the new law, courts would decide when a defendant is released from jail based on the defendant’s records, the nature of the charges and other factors that might make the defendant a flight risk or a danger to the public before trial.

Proponents of the California bill argued that the cash bail system unfairly holds low-risk defendants who can’t afford bail behind bars while awaiting trial.

The bail-bond industry — private companies that put up cash for defendants for a percentage of the bail amount and sometimes for property — doesn’t want to go out of business.

“This is the perfect time for Kansas to examine its pretrial detention practices to identify if and where improvements can be made,” Nuss said.

The Supreme Court has constitutional authority to oversee all courts in Kansas, and the task force will report its findings and recommendations to it within 18 months, a court order says.

The purpose of the task force will be to “examine current pretrial detention practices for criminal defendants in Kansas district courts, as well as alternatives to pretrial detention used to ensure public safety and encourage an accused to appear for court proceedings,” the release says.

The task force, which includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and court services and corrections officers, will compare Kansas courts to other states, to “help develop a best practices model for Kansas district courts.” After those things are done, the task force will identify what lawmakers can do to change the law to align the state’s practices with the recommendations of the task force.

The first meeting of the task force will be Dec. 13 - 14 in Topeka.

Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.

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