One of the four bills signed into law by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Wednesday was House Bill 2078, suspending the provisions of the speedy trial statute in the state through March 2023 in all criminal cases, a move welcomed by Barton County Attorney Levi Morris.
In March of last year, Chief Justice Marla Luckert closed down the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were no jury trials. Trials were allowed to start in the fall without a time restriction but few took place.
Luckert’s waiver would have continued as long as the state remains under a declaration of pandemic emergency.
That declaration expires at the end of May under a law signed by Gov. Laura Kelly recently, meaning the speedy trial extension would have also expired then without this bill.
“House Bill 2078 was a much needed piece of legislation to ensure that criminals didn’t benefit from the pandemic,” Barton County Attorney Levi Morris said. As it was, “the State of Kansas has previously provided a state statutory right to speedy trial that goes above and beyond what is required under the federal Constitution.”
Under Kansas law, defendants in custody must be brought to trial within 150 days of being bound over for trial; for those not in custody, it’s 180 days. If not, those cases could be dropped.
Opponents of the measure say if the speedy trial provision is waived, defendants who can’t afford bail could be subjected to prolonged incarceration without conviction. Kansas is one of more than a dozen states with the defendant’s right to a speedy trial in state law.
Morris said even if Kansas amends, or totally repeals, the state speedy trial statute, defendants will still have a right to a speedy trial as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The suspension only covers the portion of state law that goes above the federal requirement.
As a result of COVID, the jury trial process in Kansas was entirely shut down for eight months in some counties and more than eight months in others.
“Because crime didn’t shut down during the pandemic, a backlog of over 1,000 cases needing jury trials built up across the state,” he said.
This new provision is a compromise. The Kansas County and District Attorney’s Association had been asking for an extension to May of 2024 while the bill as passed extends speedy trial to May of 2023.
“However, as I read the bill, the Office of Judicial Administration is required to update the legislature in January the next two years on cases resolved and cases pending,” he said. “My personal belief is that based on the information provided, the subject could be revisited later on if necessary.”
For now, “in Barton County we are currently scheduling jury trials and likely will have no problem catching up on the backlog and processing the new crimes before the May 2023 deadline arrives,” Morris said.