Hard 50 Fix Headed To Senate

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The marquee item of the Kansas Legislature's special session is halfway to becoming law.

The Kansas House late Tuesday afternoon approved a measure that fixes a constitutional flaw in the state's Hard 50 sentencing law for some convicted murderers. The vote was 122-0.

The afternoon voted followed a morning hearing by the House Judiciary Committee. One by one, public safety personnel told the committee how valuable it is to have the option of sentencing murderers to life in prison with no chance at parole for 50 years.

They were joined by Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, whose daughter, Kelsey, was kidnapped and murdered. Smith said the wound never heals. He says it festers and is ripped back open every time they must testify about their family's loss.

Families like the Smiths are part of the reason why Attorney General Derek Schmidt advocated for bringing the law into compliance sooner rather than later. A June U.S. Supreme Court ruling said juries must decide aggravating factors for enhanced sentences. Under current Kansas law, a judge makes the Hard 50 determination.

A bill backed by Schmidt puts juries in the Kansas process. He also backs making it apply to 45 Hard 50 cases currently on appeal or in the trial process. Schmidt says it would be allowed because it is considered a procedural fix rather than a substantive fix.

But the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says making the Hard 50 fix retroactive would also be unconstitutional. Jessica Glendening, who serves on the group's board of governors, says such a fix would apply a law that, in effect, didn't exist when the crime occurred, amounting to a substantive change.

Glendening says most people sentenced to life in prison do serve well beyond 25 years. She says the parole board has an interest in protecting public safety by deciding to keep those defendants behind bars longer.

As for the families, Glendening says, even with the fix, they will find themselves testifying again sooner rather than later in appeals the state agrees are inevitable.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing on the bill Wednesday morning, with the goal of a Senate vote Wednesday afternoon.