A subcommittee of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission debated potential modifications to the Kansas Public Offender Registry. The full commission will review suggestions from the group and incorporate them in a final report to the Legislature (Screen Capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube)
TOPEKA — Criminal justice advocates, experts and law enforcement are debating potential changes to the Kansas drug and sex offender registry, including whether registries should be made public and an exit mechanism for some offenders.
Of primary concern for the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission Subcommittee on Proportionality and Sentencing is whether drug offenders should be included on a public registry or if that information should be available only to law enforcement. Under Kansas law, those with a drug conviction are required to register on the same public list as more than 10,000 convicted sex offenders.
As of March 1, 2021, the Kansas Public Offender Registry contained the names and addresses of 5,777 drug offenders. The full registry, which includes other offenders, is approaching 1% of the state population, leading many critics to argue the list has become bloated.
“I don’t think it should, especially the drug side, keep somebody from getting a decent job if you don’t have a job. That’s just plain common sense,” said former Marysville Police Chief Todd Ackerman. He said information put together by the Council of State Governments indicated requiring an offender to register for the list did not reduce recidivism.
Ackerman oversees the subcommittee, which met Thursday to prepare a report for the full commission to discuss. Any final recommendations to the Legislature on the public registry will be determined when the commission approves a full report.
The Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling on the registry issue Friday, stating mandatory lifetime post release registration under the Kansas Offender Registration Act is not meant as punishment. The decision reaffirmed the court’s 2016 holding from State v. Petersen-Beard that this is not punishment for the purpose of applying the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution — which prohibits legislatures from passing laws that retroactively criminalize behavior.
Justice Eric Rosen dissented from the majority, reiterating a long-standing opinion that KORA’s registration requirement is a punishment.
In a separate case, the state’s highest court ruled that mandatory lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders are also not a punishment for the purpose of applying the ex post facto clause, the Eighth Amendment — prohibiting cruel or unusual punishment — or the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights.
While Ackerman suggested drug offenders’ information should no longer be made public, he said law enforcement would likely be unwilling to accept no longer including them on a private registry for police or other investigating agencies.
Ackerman, who was removed as chief of police for Marysville earlier this month, will be replaced on the full commission and as chair of the subcommittee as soon as the office of the Attorney General approves a new chief of police member. He may continue to serve as an Ad Hoc member.
Panel members, said changes to the sexual offender section of the registry required more nuance. Jonathan Ogletree, chair of the Prison Review Board for the Kansas Department of Corrections, argued this information was of import to the public.
“People want to know about that, and I think the general public, outside of law enforcement, go to that site frequently more than they do to look up drug offenders,” Ogletree said, adding one avenue would be to allow people who exhibit good behavior to have an avenue off the registry, depending on the crime.
Other subcommittee members worried the penalty for failing to register is much too strong, depending on the severity of the offense committed. Patrick Armstrong, of the Council of State Governments, said in some instances the penalty can result in a sentence that exceeds the crime committed.
He said failing to register could incur a penalty equal to someone who committed arson.
“That is a little bit more severe and extreme, and everyone agrees that they don’t quite align,” Armstrong said. “I feel like if you just mentioned a couple of those pretty explicitly in the report that gets the job done for the Legislature to see what the actual issue is.”
Jennifer Roth, of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said there are about 423 people currently in prison for failing to register. Not only are penalties too severe, she said, but they are also causing bed space to be unnecessarily occupied in correctional facilities.
“If nothing else, this committee would just be willing to say that the current penalties are disproportionate to the offense and they should be lowered, I’d be thrilled with just that notion,” Roth said.
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