Lawmakers take up backlog of court cases caused by pandemic

Kansas Capitol.jpg
Posted at 1:27 PM, Mar 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 14:27:29-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are working to give prosecutors and courts time to clear a backlog of several thousand criminal cases that built up during the coronavirus pandemic, though they disagree about how much is enough time.

The Senate approved, 32-7, a bill Wednesday night that would suspend until May 1, 2023, a law aimed at protecting defendants' constitutional right to a speedy trial. The law requires cases to come to trial within five months of a defendant who has been jailed entering a plea, and within six months if the defendant is free on bond.

Lawmakers have said there's a backlog of about 5,000 criminal cases, and prosecutors worry that many of them will have to be dismissed if the deadlines are not suspended.

"This is a serious public safety issue," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican. "It's a solution. It's not ideal, but it's that something that we still need."

The House approved its version of the measure three weeks ago, suspending the speedy trial deadlines for three years instead of two, until May 1, 2024. It can either accept the Senate's version and send that to Gov. Laura Kelly or demand negotiations with senators.

But some GOP conservatives and Democrats are nervous about suspending the deadlines, worried that defendants will languish unnecessarily in jail.

Meanwhile, presidents of state universities and colleges told the Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday that operations are slowly returning to something closer to normal, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

"We're anticipating a full reopening of our campuses this fall," said interim Wichita State president Richard Muma. "However, we're not out of the woods yet, and we'll continue to exercise caution to protect the health and safety of our campus community."

Most of the universities now plan on attempting to hold at least some in-person commencement ceremonies in May, while maintaining virtual access to those celebrations. That will be accomplished by moving graduations to outdoor stadiums, like at Kansas State University, said president Richard Myers.

At the University of Kansas, Chancellor Doug Girod said the university is hosting two rounds of commencement ceremonies - a regular one, and another for students who missed out on last year's ceremonies. He said in speaking with one Lawrence hotel manager, demand for hotel rooms for the make-up commencement ceremonies is far outpacing demand for the normal commencement.

Emporia State president Allison Garrett said some things are still in flux, such as the extent to which masks will still be required on campus. Additionally, study abroad programs and international travel for faculty are still uncertain, she said.