Kansas legislators on Monday approved a measure that would give judges and prosecutors a little more than two years to clear a backlog of criminal cases that built up during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state House voted 114-7 to pass a plan for clearing an estimated backlog of 5,000 criminal cases. The measure goes next to Gov. Laura Kelly because the Senate approved it last week.
The House vote came just before the state Department of Health and Environment reported that more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine shots have been administered in Kansas. The state also said 23% of its 2.9 million residents have had at least one shot.
The court-backlog bill would suspend until May 1, 2023, a state law designed to protect defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. The law requires cases to come to trial within five months of a jailed defendant entering a plea and within six months if the defendant is free on bond.
The courts have the backlog because trials have been postponed during the pandemic. Prosecutors have worried that if the deadlines remain in effect, judges will be forced to release some offenders accused of violent crimes.
“It’s just not feasible, given the backlog that we have, that we’re going to get caught up quicker,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican. “People who committed heinous crimes, we don’t want them walking free.”
The measure had broad support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and the Democratic governor has expressed support for the idea. However, a few legislators, mostly GOP conservatives, had misgivings about not pressing the courts more aggressively to clear the backlog.
“If I was sitting in jail, I wouldn’t want to be waiting until that date to get a speedy trial,” said Republican Rep. Michael Houser, of Columbus, one of the no votes in the House.
Kansas has seen new COVID-19 cases drop to numbers as low as it saw in late June 2020. Most of the state’s 286 school districts have a majority of their students taking in-person classes, according to the State Department of Education.
But many Republican lawmakers argue that all parents who want their children taking in-person classes should have the option because it’s better for kids academically and emotionally. The House gave first-round approval Monday to a bill that would require all districts to offer full-time in-person classes to all students by March 31.