Kan. Senate OKs bill strengthening ‘Hard 50’ law

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A minimum of 50 years would be the presumed prison sentence in Kansas for premeditated, first-degree murder rather than an option for juries to consider under a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate.

The measure, sent to the House on a 35-3 vote, would be the second major revision of the state’s “Hard 50” law in less than a year. The law now allows a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years when juries determine that circumstances such as torture of a victim or shooting into a crowd warrant more than the presumed punishment of 25 years to life.

Under the bill, defendants would face at least 50 years in prison unless a judge determined that circumstances warranted the lesser sentence of 25 years to life. A judge would be required to publicly state “substantial and compelling” reasons.

“What would be fair or what would be just?” said Senate Majority Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican. “Fifty years is more fair to the victim and the victim’s family than 25.”

Voting no were Democratic Sens. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita, Marci Francisco of Lawrence and David Haley of Kansas City. Haley said juries should remain involved when a long sentence means that a defendant is likely to die in prison, and he noted that lawmakers rewrote the “Hard 50” law during a special session in September to give juries a role in sentencing.

“We will be reverting back to what brought us into special session,” Haley said.

The “Hard 50” law had said that judges weigh evidence for and against sentencing a defendant to a minimum of 50 years rather than 25. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Virginia case in June that juries had to evaluate the evidence for mandatory minimum sentences to be constitutional, and Gov. Sam Brownback called lawmakers into a special session to fix the problem in the Kansas law.

Bruce said the new law he’s pursuing would be constitutional under past court decisions because judges would be lessening a presumed sentence, rather than boosting a minimum punishment.

In Kansas, the only penalties tougher than the “Hard 50” are capital punishment and life without parole, the alternative to death in a capital case and a sentence also possible for some habitual sex offenders.

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