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Kansas Courts Uphold The Nation's Toughest Rules For Tracking People After Conviction

A map showing the locations on the Kansas criminal registry.
Screengrab, Kansas Bureau of Investigation
The state’s criminal registry is constitutional, the Kansas Supreme Court says, despite critics saying it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. This map from the registry shows the location of people who must comply with its rules.

The state's high court ruled the state's criminal registry rules aren't punitive and that they can be imposed even in crimes committed before the statutes demanding life-long check-ins were imposed.

TOPEKA, Kansas — People on criminal registries in Kansas face felony charges for getting a new email address without alerting law enforcement.

It’s just one of the ways that criminal registries in Kansas restrict a broad range of people even after they’ve completed probation and parole.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a pair of cases last week that the state’s criminal registry laws — among the most sweeping in the country — are constitutional.

“Dissemination of registration information does not rise to the level of public shaming, does not impose an affirmative disability or restraint, are not excessive, and are rationally connected to a nonpunitive purpose,” the court wrote in its ruling.

Both cases involved people convicted of offenses that required they be on the list, but only for certain periods of time. The state Legislature later amended the Kansas Offender Registration Act requiring those people stay on the list for life and comply with a range of requirements to keep the state clued in to a variety of changes in their lives.

Both cases challenged the law as unconstitutional because they added requirements that didn’t exist at the time the crimes were committed.

In one case, the offender was originally sentenced at age 14 and didn’t serve time in prison. But a later change in the statute meant the child offender is legally required to live up to the rules of the criminal registry for life. Justice Eric Rosen dissented with the court’s majority and argued that being on the list is “effective banishment.”

A 2018 investigation by the Kansas News Service found that the state’s online registry was more extensive and had more stringent requirements than those in force in virtually any other state. People convicted of drug, violent or sex crimes must register on the list.

Whether they were convicted of serious felonies or misdemeanors, registrants must check in with their sheriff’s office and pay $20 every three months. Changing jobs, getting a tattoo or buying a car, boat or any other vehicle would also require a check-in within three days of the change. People on the registry without permanent addresses need to check in monthly.

Missing check-ins or falling behind $40 on fees for more than two weeks is a felony.

The person who was convicted when they were 14 — identified only as N.R. in the case — became homeless, had his life put in danger and faced an “insurmountable financial strain” because of the requirements to remain on the list, according to the plea challenging the law.

“Countless jurists, scholars, and social scientists have confirmed how common these burdens are to those required to register,” Rosen wrote in his dissent. “Today, the court eschews the United States Constitution and the citizens it stands to protect for reasons I cannot comprehend.”

Rosen also dissented in Davidson v. State of Kansas, arguing again that “the oppressive and onerous requirements of offender registration are punitive.”

The majority of the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state Legislature didn’t intend for the system to be a punishment, and therefore can’t be considered cruel or unusual punishment. Local law enforcement also supports keeping the registry intact, saying it keeps Kansans informed on potential “hazards for their child.”

“Choices have consequences,” Greg Smith, a former state senator, told the Kansas News Service in 2018. “If you don’t want to register, don’t do the crime.”

The registry has continued to grow in recent years. Jennifer Roth, a Kansas public defender, said there are more than 20,000 people on the list. She said the list isn’t “grounded in research, evidence, science (or) data.”

Rosen wrote registries do little to affect recidivism rates.

Critics of the Kansas registry have been pushing for changes in recent years, saying the system contributes to jail and prison overcrowding by putting people behind bars for failing to meet its rigid requirements.

Roth, who is also co-chair of the legislative committee of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, worked on legislation that would reduce penalties for non-compliance and allow Kansans to get off the list early. Last year, a bill passed out of a Kansas House committee and then stalled.

The Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission is now considering some of those recommendations.

“I have seen movements over the years in the members of the public and people who are elected to the Legislature in Kansas,” Roth said, “where they really are seeing that there’s some unfairness to this.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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