Bill in Kansas House would give offenders a way out of public registries for sex, drugs, violence

By: - February 23, 2021 9:10 am

The House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, chaired by Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, favorably passed the specialty courts bill. Jennings said he was glad to support a bill expanding on existent programs. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators are again considering a bill offering dramatic changes to the rules around the state’s expansive public offender registry.

The Kansas Offenders Registration Act was implemented in 1993 to monitor convicted sex offenders after serving their sentence. In the years since its passage, the registry has expanded to cover those convicted of drug or violent offenses.

Penalties for noncompliance with the registration act also have ballooned.

The proposed bill would dramatically reduce penalties for failing to register, amend the violent and drug offense registration requirements, and provide a path to get off of the registry for those who have served their time and are no longer a risk to society.

Opponents of the proposal before the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, chaired by Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, suggested it would overcorrect problems with the registry. Supporters countered that it only seems that way because the system has become “bloated.”

Seth Wescott, a psychologist and director of a sex offender treatment program in Lenexa, said it is more comfortable to look at current policies and punishments and believe they are based on concrete evidence, but many of the changes have been made without evidence.

“Sometimes policies that are meant to protect actually do more harm than good,” Wescott said. “We have a responsibility to put our resources toward evidence-based measures, to have our policies make sense and to let research be our guide.”

The bill is the brainchild of two years spent reviewing the state’s registration policies by an advisory committee for the Kansas Judicial Council, which Wescott served on. A similar bill filed last year died in the House, in part because the session was shortened by COVID-19.

In Kansas, there are currently 22,000 people on the registry, the majority of whom fall under the violent or drug crime category. Kansas is also the only state with a drug registry open to the public and one of a small handful of states with three concurrent registries.

Under the bill, the drug offender registry would only be available to law enforcement. It would also get rid of a rule requiring lifetime registration for an offender convicted of two drug offenses.

The “crown jewel” of the bill — as dubbed by proponents — provides those on the registry with the opportunity to petition for removal from the list. Offenders will have the opportunity to make this appeal depending on their original sentence and time served.

The court will decide based on a standard of clear and convincing evidence if the offender’s inclusion on the registry no longer promotes public safety. If the offender is denied the petition, they must wait three years until filing again.

Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, and a member of the sex offender and registration advisory committee for the Kansas Judicial Council, said her decision to support the bill is not an easy one, but common sense pointed to this legislation.

“I’m not suggesting that we let people off automatically, but an exit ramp that people initiate themselves when they have shown that they can model citizens makes so much sense,” Humphries said.

Humphries also expressed concern with the current outcome for failure to register under state requirements.

While registration is a civil matter, not a criminal punishment, the penalty for failure to comply with registration is a Level 6 felony. That is presumptive prison time under the current sentencing grid.

The new bill would lower the punishment for any first or second-time failure to register to a misdemeanor. The third misstep would return to a felony-level offense.

Jennifer Roth, of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said rather than ensure the public is aware of potentially dangerous individuals in the area, the penalties are putting people in prison for trivial reasons.

In one example of noncompliance Roth encountered in her work, failure to list a newly purchased Jet Ski on the registration form resulted in incarceration.

“This isn’t just about jail beds. This about people,” Roth said. “If you want them to be successful in life and live the kinds of lives you want them to lead, then you need to think about what it is you are penalizing them for and to what extent.”

Ed Klumpp, a representative of several law enforcement organizations across Kansas, opposed the bill for what he said was an overcorrection to the noncompliance punishment.

“Over the years, we see the pendulum creep, and then, all of a sudden, things happen, and we say, ‘Oh my god. This is not right,’ ” Klumpp said. “We want to swing the pendulum, and we swing it way past the center mark to the other side.”

Klumpp recognized some need for change in the registration system and said he supported the idea of an off-ramp for offenders.

Greg Smith, a former state senator who works on policy issues for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, echoed Klumpp’s acknowledgment that the system required modification but did not feel the evidence presented by proponents warranted such strong changes.

Jennings, who joined Humphries, Roth and Wescott on the advisory committee, said his House panel would review the bill later this week. Stakeholders were advised to prepare for discussion to find a middle ground on some of these disagreements.

“There seems to me to be some pretty serious inequities and some pretty serious unfairness to offenders, and its value is diminished just by sheer volume,” Jennings said. “So, I hope we can find something to advance.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.