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Legislative Leftovers: The Power of Focus and a Voice for Victims

by Melissa Brunner

Before the legislature's special session gets too far in the rearview mirror, I wanted to share a couple of my reflections on what unfolded over two days at the Statehouse.

The first is just that - it unfolded over two days! One of the chief complaints I hear about the legislature is how everything moves so slowly and becomes bogged down in peripheral issues instead of focusing on the task at hand, so nothing ever gets accomplished. Last week is proof that lawmakers can come together, keep focus and work quickly.

True, there was an effort to bring in the issue of voter identification laws, but it was ruled off-topic. Not that I'm saying it is or isn't an issue that needs attention, it just wasn't where the focus was to be placed at this particular time. On the other hand, advocates for repealing the death penalty acknowledged it would be related to the Hard 50 sentence being addressed, but they decided the in-depth discussion it would spark would put at risk preserving the Hard 50 which they also supported. The regular session does bring any and all issues to the table, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is that each of those issues has its time. Let's keep focus at those times and not erect roadblocks to the issues on which we can agree by jumbling them with those on which there is more contention.

I also must note the involvement of Sen. Greg Smith. The special session left me with the thought that crime victims have a strong voice in the legislature. Sen. Smith's daughter, Kelsey, was kidnapped and killed in June 2007, weeks after graduating from high school. He was not in the legislature at that time, but his desire to turn his loss into something positive led him to the Statehouse. During the special session debate over the Hard 50, Sen. Smith spoke emotionally about the impact of testifying in court, about having to talk about the most horrible, painful experience of one's life. He talked about wounds that never heal and are repeatedly ripped open each time you must recall the experience. The fact he is willing to share this knowledge most people pray they never have can be viewed as a valuable resource.

Those who've known me over the years know this is something with which I am familiar. But for the grace of God, Sen. Smith's story could have been the story of my parents. The end of this month will mark 19 years since I became a survivor of violent crime.

It's probably fair to say not all those touched by crime will have the same opinions about sentencing issues and courtroom procedures and the like. But when those issues are being discussed, it can be very easy for those making the rules to forget that real people and real families lie beneath the statistics. Heck, I think it is something those of us in the media forget sometimes, too - it's not just a murder victim, it was a person who lost their life - a person with parents, maybe siblings and friends and children. With Sen. Smith's presence, when those discussions happen in the Kansas legislature, it will be harder to forget the faces behind the numbers - because one will be at the table, looking back at them.

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