TOPEKA — A House committee explored potential Monday of reversing state law adopted in 2014 that extended the state’s “speedy trial” mandate to 150 days for criminal defendants.
The Kansas attorney general and a coalition of law enforcement organizations convinced lawmakers four years ago to broaden by two months the previous 90-day limit on moving to trial with criminal defendants in custody.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in Douglas County and the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers urged legislators to walk away from that bad idea by passing House Bill 2535.
The 150-day obligation to the accused, a responsibility of the prosecution, contributes to longer pre-trial stints in jail as defense lawyers wrangle on behalf of clients, said Jennifer Roth, legislative co-chair with the group of defense attorneys.
She said the state should have responded to logjams in the judicial system by investing in prosecution and indigent defense personnel, adding judges and expanding forensic laboratory capabilities.
“The change to 150 days was a Band-Aid at best,” Roth said. “It is time to rip off the Band-Aid and have those conversations as necessary.”
Robert Bieniecki, criminal justice coordinator for Douglas County, said extension in the speedy-trial cap contributed to longer lengths of stay in the county jail. While bookings in the jail declined since 2014, he said, the average daily population in the jail expanded from 171 in 2014 to 231 in 2017. The capacity of the jail is 186, requiring 50 to 60 inmates to be held in other counties.
Overcrowding persists despite the county’s initiation of a pre-trial release program and a house-arrest option, he said.
Natalie Chalmers, assistant solicitor general for Kansas, said the changes presented to the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, opposed the bill because it “needlessly endangers criminal convictions.”
“Kansas’ statutory speedy trial rights are already far more favorable to defendants than constitutionally required,” she said. “This bill risks being a get-out-of-jail-free pass to any defendant whose trial did not occur within 90 days of his or her arraignment.”
Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler, Emporia, said the Kansas District Judges Association decided the bill carried great enough potential risk to the community and courts to break with precedent and take a position on a legislative matter related to criminal procedure.
“While courts would likely find ways to timely process cases with a shorter time limit, it would be done so at the expense of timely processing our civil, domestic, probate, child in need of care, care and treatment, and other case types.”