TOPEKA — Mennonite Fellowship pastor Jennifer Harris Dault wants the federal court system to rely on the Golden Rule for wisdom and compassion necessary to release former Newton therapist Arlan Kaufman from prison halfway through a 30-year sentence.
Harris Dault, of the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship attended by one of Kaufman’s sons, said in a letter to the U.S. District Court that Kaufman, otherwise known as Inmate No. 19078-031, was in failing health and deserved to die in dignity surrounded by family. He was convicted of crimes centering on two decades of physical and mental abuse of disabled adults at group homes in Newton.
“I recognize that the justice system is not based upon any particular religion, but I do believe that it is at its best when it holds the dignity of humankind at its heart,” the pastor said. “Every major religious group has some variation of the Golden Rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Her letter was among two dozen sent to the court by Mennonite church leaders, Kaufman’s children, members of his extended family, and people familiar with some aspect of Kaufman’s career. They were assembled in a campaign to gain leniency for Kaufman.
In July, U.S. District Judge Thomas Marten rejected the request and cited the heinous nature of Kaufman’s treatment of mentally ill patients in central Kansas. Zachary Newland, who works for a law firm in Rutland, Vt., filed the appeal notice Aug. 4 on Kaufman’s behalf with the U.S. Court of Appeals. He urged the appellate court to intervene by reversing Marten’s decision.
Kaufman’s legal counsel has argued that he ought to benefit from a 2018 law removing obstacles from judicial review of sentences to determine whether “extraordinary and compelling” reasons existed to trim incarceration times. The COVID-19 pandemic adds urgency to the plea given Kaufman’s stage-4 cancer diagnosis and other significant health challenges.
U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Wichita Republican, urged the federal court to keep Kaufman in prison. At least two women who endured what federal prosecutors referred to a “house of horrors” in Newton have objected to Kaufman’s compassionate release.
“If he is released, in his mind, he wins,” said victim Nancy Jensen. “If he is released, in our experience, we lose.”
Newton resident Kathy Wiens, who has been active in the Mennonite Church for nearly 50 years and experienced childhood sexual abuse, said she was saddened people writing letters on Kaufman’s behalf were twisting the church’s perspectives on peace and nonviolence.
“The statements of support are only concerned with the one who has perpetrated sexual crimes against mentally disabled individuals,” Wiens said. “If this perpetrator is granted compassionate release, the result will be more years of pain and suffering added to the victims’ life sentence of trauma.”
Kaufman, 83, and his wife, Linda, were convicted in 2005 of forcing persistently mentally ill residents at their group homes to live and work naked and to perform sex acts, including some that were videotaped. In addition to involuntary servitude, the Kaufmans were convicted of Medicare fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy.
They were both found guilty of at least 30 crimes for conduct that allegedly began in 1984 and continued until arrested in 2004. Arlan Kaufman was ordered to prison until May 1, 2031. Linda Kaufman, who was a registered nurse, was to be confined for 15 years. She was released in 2016 on humanitarian grounds and died in 2019.
David Kaufman, one of Kaufman’s children and a resident of Olivette, Mo., said in a letter to the federal court that his father had always been a man of faith. He said his dad was active in the Mennonite church and raised three children with “strong commitments to peace, compassion and social justice.”
“Despite the seriousness of my father’s convictions, he is not at risk for re-offending. He is not a flight risk. He is not a danger to society,” David Kaufman said.
Members of Kaufman’s family and others said in the letters that he could live among relatives and receive proper medical care in the St. Louis area if released from a North Carolina prison medical facility.
Kaufman’s daughter, Cheryl Mast, of Goshen, Ind., said the quality of health care extended to her father in prison had been “disgracefully poor.”
“Compassionate release would not negate the crimes of which he was convicted,” she said. “He has served over half of his original sentence and is remorseful.”
Michael Kaufman, the eldest son in the Kaufman family and a resident of Lawrence, said his father’s work with mentally ill people had been misinterpreted. He said the federal trial did demonstrate “some of my father’s attitudes about therapy had become unconventional and he clearly exercised poor judgment as a therapist on several occasions.”
“I believed then, as now, that my father’s intentions were misunderstood,” Michael Kaufman said. “I ask that you also consider that my father has really done many good things in his life. The episodes leading to the convictions were mistakes in judgment and are unfortunate, but they are not representative of his life on balance.”