© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Can Registries Cover Too Many Crimes? Kansas Legislation Suggests A Rollback

Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3
Kansas' online criminal offender registry includes too many crimes, some critics say, but others want to keep it as it is.

Junkie logic brought an addict to the doorsteps of a Topeka woman once convicted of selling cocaine.

The addict was looking to buy, and Kansas’ online database of criminal offenders has a handy geographic search tool that lets users pull up the names, crimes and addresses of people who live within a few miles of their homes.

It’s meant to boost public safety, but the Kansas Sentencing Commission says other consequences come with publishing the past transgressions of nearly 20,000 Kansans.

“The state,” agency director Scott Schultz told lawmakers this month, “has unintentionally become an online shopping portal for methamphetamine and other drugs.”

Kansas lawmakers have, piece by piece and year after year, created a particularly expansive set of criminal registry rules and a whole new class of crimes for not keeping up with them. Now, some policymakers want to rethink them.

Schultz’s agency is among those pushing to pare back a system they say complicates reintegration and rehabilitation for thousands of Kansans, making it harder to find homes and jobs and to keep away from active criminals.

Names stay on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation website for 15 years or longer, beginning after offenders finish any prison time.

"They use it to see who in the neighborhood is creating a hazard for their child."

The agency wants to delete nearly a quarter of the public registry — the more than 4,500 people on it convicted of drug offenses — and in doing so, prevent dozens per year from landing back in prison for violating Kansas’ long and involved list of registry rules.

“Fifteen years is a long time,” Schultz said. “We are already penalizing these individuals.”

Law enforcement agencies want to keep the names posted online, arguing the list lets law-abiding Kansans arm themselves with information.  

“They use it to see who in the neighborhood is creating a hazard for their child,” said Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief who lobbies the legislature on behalf of sheriffs’ offices and police departments.

Klumpp cast doubt on the idea that addicts use it to find their next fix. He said none of the law enforcement officers across the state he’s talked with told him it was a problem.

The list that keeps growing

A debate over the registry is playing out this year in House and Senate hearings about multiple bills that seek to prune different branches of a system that has burgeoned in the quarter century since its inception.

Every state makes publicly accessible a sex offender registry, which feeds into an online federal website. But Kansas is one of a handful that have expanded its online criminal registry over the years to cover a particularly wide range of crimes beyond sex offenses.

"Kansas is certainly among the most ambitious,” said Wayne Logan, a Florida State University law professor who explored U.S. criminal registries in a 2009 book.

Today, Kansas adds more than 1,000 names to the registry per year. Most are people who break laws against drugs or violence.

A registry search within a three-mile radius of Topeka High — one of the state’s biggest schools and an area that includes many other public and private schools serving children of all ages — yields a map plastered with nearly 700 results.

KBI search results for a three-mile radius in Topeka show hundreds of offenders.

For proponents, that’s more security for Kansans who want to avoid buying what was once the house of a drug dealer, or avoid hiring someone with a history of assault.

Others see a list that’s become so cluttered it’s unuseful.

“People can’t tell actually at this point who they should be worried about and who they shouldn’t,” said Jennifer Roth, an appellate lawyer who testified on behalf of the state association of public defenders.

That’s partly because the registry includes so many crimes that can involve small amounts of drugs or threats of violence that never led to bodily harm. So someone who went to prison for high-level felonies such as murder and someone who received only probation for misdemeanors or low-level felonies face the same registry time — 15 years.

“You sell 50 bucks (of drugs), you’re on there,” Roth said, “You have seven pounds of heroin, you’re on there.”

Yet cops warn against minimizing the harm of offenders who might on first glance seem less menacing.

Remember, Klumpp told members of the House, that meth continues to plague Kansas. It does so largely through small-batch home producers peddling their poison.

“Southeast Kansas is really swarming with this type of activity,” he said.

Only those who commit certain crimes related to sex, human trafficking and kidnapping face longer registration — as long as life. Juveniles can face that in certain circumstances, too, but can also receive periods shorter than the 15 years.

According to a count last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 10 states include violent crimes on their registries.

You sell 50 bucks (of drugs), you're on there. You have seven pounds of heroin, you're on there."

And 10 states reveal drug offenders on public registries — a lawmaking trend fueled in part by the spread of meth. In Kansas, manufacturers, sellers and distributors of certain drugs or drug ingredients fall under the public disclosure requirements. Possession without intent to distribute is excluded, as are marijuana crimes.

High-stakes rules

Violating registry rules is a crime. People who break that law land in deeper legal woes and potentially behind bars.

Last year, Kansas courts found 326 people guilty of failing to register, sending more than 100 to prison.

Removing drug offenders from the KBI database would save $1 million a year in prison spending alone by freeing up an estimated 40 beds a year. That figure doesn’t include savings from not needing prosecutors, public defenders and judges to work the cases.

The registry rules are demanding, and running afoul of them stops the clock on a person’s registry period, leaving some people on the list even longer.

Registrants must visit their local sheriff’s office every three months to pay $20 and verify or update their information. If they live, work and study in different counties, they have to visit law enforcement there, too — and pony up the fee at each location.

Extra visits — without the quarterly fees — are required whenever anything on a long list of information changes. That includes gaining or losing a job, switching homes or schools, getting a tattoo, buying a car, boat or other vehicle, or planning travel abroad. Such changes need to be reported within three days.

Homeless people repeat the routine once a month.

Criminal law experts say the registry system is a rare instance in which failure to act is a crime.

Credit Florida State University
Wayne Logan, a Florida State University law professor, says Kansas has expanded its criminal registries well beyond what most states do.

Missing a quarterly visit or other check-in is a felony, with fresh felonies incurred for each month that goes by. Falling $40 behind on fees for more than two weeks is a felony, too.

“Imagine the criminal history you build,” said Schultz, of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, whose agency is tasked in part with brainstorming ways to alleviate the crowding in state prisons. “It can go pretty quickly.”

Schultz said studies on offender registries haven’t found that high-frequency reporting increases public safety.

“So the question then becomes, ‘Why?’” he said. “Why are we doing this?”

His agency also wants to lower the charges for debt accrual beyond $40 to a misdemeanor.

Molly Walker Wilson, a law professor at St. Louis University, explored the growth of public offender registries in a 2013 article. Based on her research at the time, Kansas’ registry requirements may be unusually stringent.

“What I was seeing typically,” she said, “was that offenders had to check in once a year or if they had a change of residence.”

Logan, the law professor, agreed. Usually high-frequency visits are required just for the more serious offenders, he said, adding that the Kansas system appears more extensive than many other states in both scope of crimes and stringency of registry rules.

Law enforcement agencies oppose alleviating the debt penalties and say people can file to be declared indigent by a court if they can’t afford the fees. Defense lawyers say people don’t know about the process and don’t receive help doing it.

In the St Louis area, Wilson says, the practice of locking people up for unpaid fees or fines drew increased scrutiny after the 2014 killing by a police officer of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the ensuing unrest.

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation found the city was leaning on excessive fees and fines for revenue. The agency later released guidance on preventing such practices nationwide. The American Bar Association and state courts joined the effort, and states began rolling out changes.

Changes appear to be afoot in Kansas, too.

Last month, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the judiciary is scrutinizing the fine and fee practices of Kansas’ more than 300 municipal courts in the wake of Ferguson, and that judges are pushing for a similar review of state courts.

A Kansas Court of Appeals ruling on the $20 registry fees also came out last month. The court ruled against the state for sentencing an offender to a year of probation after he missed three of those $20 payments. Frederick Owens registered each time as required, but said he couldn’t pay up because he was injured and out of work.

“No one gave Owens notice of a procedure he could use to get a court to determine he was unable to pay the $20,” Judge Steve Leben wrote. “Nor has the Legislature provided any clear guidance about how one might do so.”

The state didn't appeal the ruling and the deadline to do so has passed.

Rise of registries

"No one gave Owens notice of a procedure he could use to get a court to determine he was unable to pay the $20."

City criminal registries have been around for nearly a century, but statewide versions took off in the 1990s, fueled by crimes against children such as the 1994 rape and murder of a 7-year-old in New Jersey by her neighbor.

Unbeknownst to Megan Kanka’s family, multiple men with convictions related to sex crimes and pedophilia had moved into a house across the street.

According to summaries by the KBI and the state association of public defenders, Kansas lawmakers added to their registry again and again.

In the late 1990s they added murder, manslaughter and more crimes against minors. In 1997, the system went online. And over the next several years lawmakers added anyone found in a civil proceeding to be a sexually violent predator, plus juvenile sex offenders and people who used a deadly weapon while committing certain felonies — with or without bodily harm.

In 2006, Kansas began requiring people to register in person twice a year. In 2007 that became three times a year and in 2011, four times.

During that time, the state also added a slew of drug crimes to the database and then made any attempt to commit those crimes count, too.

Penalties for failing to register, meanwhile, went from a misdemeanor in the 1990s to a felony at the end of that decade and a more severe felony seven years later.

Shawnee County’s chief public defender — the lawyer whose client experienced drug addicts showing up on her doorstep — says the felonies for running afoul of registry rules can be more severe than the convictions requiring registration in the first place.

“It’s really, really onerous,” said Stacey Donovan.

For instance, she said, defendants can’t ask a jury to consider circumstances such as mental illness or a house burning down — situations Donovan says she’s seen.

People who skip or forget a check-in can be arrested when they next sign in at their sheriff’s office, even if their addresses and other information haven’t changed.

“That happens all the time,” she said.

Public defenders are also concerned that the 2006 addition to the registry of felonies with a deadly weapon now accounts for the bulk of violent offenders joining the list.

They say “deadly weapon” is being interpreted broadly: It can meaning wielding a can of mace, for example, or punching someone while wearing a class ring.

Those criticisms hold little sway with law enforcement.

Greg Smith, a special deputy for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, had the same message this month for two House and Senate panels mulling relief for drug offenders and a sliver of violent offenders on the list: Criminals have themselves to blame.

“Choices have consequences,” said Smith, a former state senator. “If you don’t want to register, don’t do the crime.”

The search page at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation website allows people to search for people who've been convicted of a variety of crimes.

The KBI didn’t testify on the bills, but said in response to an inquiry about the proposal to delete drug offenders that it supports the registry in its current form.

Promoting public safety

Do registries make you safer?

Wilson said the studies she found centered largely on the nationally ubiquitous sex offender databases, and don’t point to increased public safety.

Little research exists on lists such as those in Kansas that go beyond sex crimes.

But the Kansas database appears to get plenty of use. Last year it drew 10,000 visitors a day. The KBI says some traffic likely comes from private companies conducting automated inquiries and from the National Sex Offender Public Website, which connects searches for Kansas offenders to the KBI site.

Some of the visitors submit crime tips, too, generating upward of 100 tips a month to an email address on the KBI registry site.

“Allowing the public to view the profiles of those on the registry has an impact on the number of tips and interactions we receive from them,” KBI spokeswoman Melissa Underwood said.

Two bills in the Legislature this year would leave the system largely intact but scale back the rules for a small percentage of cases.

One applies to juveniles — who constitute fewer than 200 entries on the 20,000-name list. Brought by Lawrence Democratic Rep. Dennis Highberger, it would decriminalize young teens and preteens who are close in age and engage in non-coercive sexual contact.

“The proper response to that is having parents and teachers and counselors intervene, rather than run people through the juvenile justice system,” Highberger said.

Credit Kansas Legislature
State Rep. Dennis Highberger wants to reduce the number of juvenile offenders required to comply with criminal registries.

His bill was prompted by the story of a Lawrence middle schooler whose father says he faced charges of aggravated indecent liberties with a child — and long-term registration — for making out with and fondling his girlfriend in an elevator on school grounds. The two were in the same grade. He was 55 days older than her.

The other bill — brought by Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican vying to replace Rep. Lynn Jenkins in Congress — would likely affect fewer than 20 current registrants.

Judges would have discretion to allow certain violent offenders off the registry after five years if they’ve committed no crimes in that period — including registry rule violations — and if the crime that landed them on the list was their first offense. Victims would be allowed to address the court before its decision.

Fitzgerald said he believes in punishment, but “we also have to have rehabilitation” and incentives toward that end. He compared his idea to showing a prisoner some leniency for consistently following rules.

“It’s part of our overall system to reward good behavior,” he said. “This is part of that.”

Smith said the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t believe most violent offenders can be reformed and called Fitzgerald’s bill “one more thing to give crime victims the perception that they don’t matter.”

“It’s all about the criminal’s rights,” he said. “It’s all about making sure they get a fair trial. It’s all about making sure they get a good deal — like getting off a 15-year registry that they’re supposed to be on.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original story.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.