Kansas considers ‘Hard 50’

Legislature convenes special session for sentencing law

By Bethany Knipp

The Kansas Legislature convened for a special session Tuesday to rewrite the state’s “Hard 50” criminal sentencing law and to approve Gov. Sam Brownback’s appointment of Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

The “Hard 50” law allows judges to sentence some convicted murderers to life in prison, with no chance for parole for 50 years.  A June 17 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Alleyne v. U.S., held that juries must consider whether the facts in a case trigger mandatory minimum sentences. In Kansas, judges weigh the evidence.

On July 24, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt called for the special session to rewrite the law in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Democrat from Manhattan, said he didn’t know of anyone in the Legislature who was opposed to the changes proposed for the law.

“I think we just need to make the correction in the law so we can make the right kids of sentencing decisions as we have,” Hawk said.

Rep. Ronald Highland, a Republican from Wamego, agreed and said his position sits with the majority on the issue.

A more controversial subject will be the approval of Stegall, Brownback’s former staff attorney, as a judge for the Kansas appellate court.

Kansas law recently changed the judicial selection process from a merit system where candidates were selected by a committee of attorneys for the governor to approve – known as the Missouri Plan –  to one that resembles the federal system selection process, where the governor appoints someone who then must be approved by the Senate.

Hawk said he’s concerned about the whole process of the selection because it’s not as transparent as the old system. He said he’s not questioning Stegall’s ability.

“He’s a personable guy. He’s very bright,” Hawk said. However, Hawk said Stegall has no judicial experience.

“I just think it’s bad policy,” he said.

Highland disagreed.

“When I’m talking to my constituents, they are for having a say through their elected leaders to confirm appointments,” Highland said.

Highland said he is in favor of the new system and thinks it’s a fair one.

The appointment is expected to be approved. This is the first special session since 2005.

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