Criminal justice panel explores racial dynamics of traffic stops, gang lists in Kansas

By: - August 23, 2021 5:22 pm

Citing a book co-authored by a KU colleague, Jean Phillips noted the impact traffic stops can have on communities of color. These stops are among areas a Kansas criminal justice reform panel focused on last week. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube)

TOPEKA — A Kansas criminal justice reform panel is highlighting the dynamic between communities of color and law enforcement during traffic stops as an area in need of immediate attention from lawmakers.

Several members of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission subcommittee on race and the criminal justice system said last week that while traffic stops may feel minor to some, they have become a source of friction and distrust. Commissioners agreed the topic is too broad to fully tackle before they submit a report later this year, but they say it should be a priority for further study in Kansas.

Sedgwick County district attorney Marc Bennett, who serves as chairman of the commission, said he was eager to see traffic stops addressed in some fashion in the report. A gathering Saturday in Wichita for community members adversely impacted by traffic stops and the fines and fees that come with them was well attended, he said.

Bennett said what stood out to him at the forum was the number of people who never had a license due to traffic stop concerns.

“It was almost always seen as an insurmountable thing to go do,” Bennett said. “I didn’t realize that level of distrust, or that there have been so many bad experiences with just the traffic system that they just never even got licenses in their life.”

Suggestions for an approach to the issue included collaboration with the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice or drafting a statement urging the Legislature to review the subject during the upcoming session. The criminal justice panel is expected to submit a report to state lawmakers and Gov. Laura Kelly in November.

Jean Phillips, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law and subcommittee member, said traffic stops are critical in defining race, citing a 2014 book from a KU colleague.

“It’s all up to law enforcement officers to decide who to pull over and when there’s not,” Phillips said. “It’s not a coincidence that we say, ‘driving while black.'”

Beyond traffic stops, the commission also noted a lack of race-related data collection within the state’s criminal justice system. The commission and several legislative committees and task forces have also previously noted a need for new or more thorough information collection.

In terms of new data, Sen. David Haley, a member of the commission but not the subcommittee, joined the meeting to express his desire to see more numbers that show how communities of color are targeted every day.

“I want to get to the end result that shows the disparity, the gross disparity, in those that are currently prosecuted and incarcerated and how we reach that between our demographic populations,” the Kansas City Democrat said.

The arbitrary use of gang lists in some Kansas communities was also of concern to the commission. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union and Kansas Appleseed filed a lawsuit against the Wichita Police Department alleging the use of a gang list had disproportionately harmed communities of color.

When on a gang list, one may face a variety of legal difficulties or personal hurdles, including increased bail, plaintiffs in the lawsuit said. Kansas law mandates judges set cash bail for those on any gang list — not just in Wichita — at a minimum of $50,000.

Recommending the statute be changed so judges would be asked to set an appropriate bond rather than what Bennet called an arbitrary figure was seen as a quick action the commission could vote on as soon as its next meeting.

“It’s crazy to me that if you have gang affiliation — and by the way, how do we even determine what makes somebody gang-affiliated — for that to be $50,000 bail across the board is crazy,” Phillips said. “I think changing that would be something we could recommend with a great deal of ease.”

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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.