By: Caitlin Knute
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With Gov. Laura Kelly's statewide emergency order set to expire March 31, the clock is ticking for Kansas courts.
During the pandemic, jury trials were put on hold in Kansas and across the country.
In Kansas, there's a speedy trial statute that gives defendants the right to go to trial within 150 days. If that deadline is not met, their case could be dismissed.
Until now, court delays have been covered under the emergency order. If it's not extended, many district attorneys fear they could be overwhelmed by a backlog of cases.
Their solution is a stay on the statute that passed in the Kansas House of Representatives Thursday.
“The statutory fix that we currently have will prevent us from having criminals walk out the door scot-free with no justice for the victims. But it still doesn't alleviate the fact that we have a backlog of hundreds of cases that we have to deal with. We only have so many courts and I only have so many jurors we can bring in safely,” Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said.
Howe said Johnson County typically has 60 to 75 jury trials a year. Going forward in 2021 he predicts they'll have twice that many, adding last year's total to this year's cases.
If the bill passes the Kansas Senate and is signed by the Kelly, the suspension of the statute would go into effect for three years.
But critics, including the ACLU of Kansas, argue that could leave defendants sitting in jail awaiting trial for months or even years.
“It means they’re away from their families, they’re away from their communities. They can’t work, they can’t support their loved ones. It also means that they might be at risk of having evidence lost in their case. It’s really not being able to mount the same type of defense that they would be able to have, had the right to a speedy trial been enforced,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas.
Both sides note that even if this suspension goes into effect, defendants are still guaranteed a right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution.
The difference is the Constitution doesn't give a set deadline for when a trial must occur, and gives courts a little more leeway.