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Recent Kansas editorials

August 7, 2018

The Kansas City Star, Aug. 3

Why would Wyandotte County police officials oppose a conviction integrity unit?

A letter from law enforcement agencies in Wyandotte County opposed to District Attorney Mark Dupree’s request for money to establish a conviction integrity unit missed the mark.

The unit would study claims of innocence, prosecutorial misconduct and law enforcement error. Dupree’s office has already identified 19 cases that warrant additional scrutiny.

As one concerned citizen rightly asked: Why would any honest, compassionate person not want wrongly convicted people released?

Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler, Wyandotte County Sheriff Donald Ash and two representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police oppose the unit.

In a letter to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the group wrote that the unit is a “clear deviation from the criminal justice system’s handling of manifest injustice claims” under state law.

The letter also asserts that a mishandled integrity unit case could harm the state economically after Kansas lawmakers passed a bill to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Public safety also could be at risk, they argued.

Those statements are misleading.

“Every single part of that letter is disturbing,” said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.

A Wyandotte County conviction integrity unit would build community confidence in the justice system.

The wrongfully convicted are a part of a system that has oppressed many in Wyandotte County for decades, Bushnell said. And that needs to be fixed. One essential step is to overturn wrongful convictions and to right those miscarriages of justice.

Dupree, the county’s top law enforcement official, is acting within the scope of his duties to examine errors and misconduct and ensure that every citizen is treated fairly, Bushnell said.

“And that’s why the letter (to Schmidt) was so disappointing,” she said.

Dupree is confident — as he should be — that the unit would adhere to Kansas law in its review of cases. Why would police agencies in Wyandotte County be against it?

Shouldn’t law enforcement support Dupree? To publicly challenge a county prosecutor trying to improve a system that unfairly targets and incarcerates people of color and other minorities is out of step with progressive public policy.

Conviction integrity units have been successful across the country. There is a need for one in Wyandotte and other metro-area counties.

Those units and other organizations such as the Midwest Innocence Project were credited with more than half the 139 exonerations in 2017, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

A prosecutor’s job does not end with a conviction. Part of Dupree’s duty is to see that justice is done. A conviction integrity unit would help.

The ugly truth of the American criminal justice system is wrongful convictions erode the public’s faith in the process. And exonerations play an integral part in restoring trust.

It seems law enforcement officials are asking Dupree to turn a blind eye to possible innocence cases. And that’s disconcerting.

Perhaps Dupree, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., said it best: “People are scared of the past. But I say we need exposure on what was done.”

Creating a conviction integrity unit in Wyandotte County would be a start.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 1

Shawnee County seems to have a problem with grand juries.

In case you didn’t catch The Topeka Capital-Journal’s story last week, reporters Katie Moore and Luke Ranker outlined the grand jury process here and ways in which — to at least some defense attorneys and those accused of crimes — it’s being misused.

The whole story is worth an attentive read. But there are a couple of points to keep in the front of your mind.

First, a grand jury is a panel of residents is called together to hear cases about various individuals. That grand jury then decides whether probable cause exists in a case. If it does, indictments follow. No one whose case is being heard by the grand jury knows. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy.

If you don’t bring charges through the grand jury process, you can do so through a preliminary hearing, in which all parties are notified. The process is open to all, and the public can attend. A judge then makes the final call on probable cause.

That’s the first point. The second is that Shawnee County uses grand juries far more than any other county in the state. Moore and Ranker report that, “In examining the first 200 felony cases filed this year in Shawnee County District Court, an indictment was produced in more than 120 cases.”

By comparison, the Sedgwick County District Attorney says he can remember only two grand juries being called in his county in 21 years. The Wyandotte County DA’s office spokesman couldn’t remember the last one called there. And the Johnson County DA’s office spokeswoman recalls only one in recent years.

That just seems off. Why is Shawnee County so different? Why does it depend on this opaque process for so many of its felony cases?

Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay offers several defenses of the practice. He says rights are protected, victims avoid the stress of being called on to testify at a hearing, and money is saved by efficiently cycling through cases.

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, point to difficulty in receiving grand jury transcripts and overall concerns about transparency. Preliminary hearings serve justice better, they claim.

While we appreciate the district attorney’s concerns about efficiency, we have to wonder if this process is what’s best for Shawnee County. We’re not so far removed from other Kansas municipalities that their practices have no bearing on us. So why have they made such different choices?

At a time when public trust in law enforcement and the justice system has frayed, perhaps Kagay should be looking for ways to enhance transparency in his office, rather than relying so heavily on such a secretive process.

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The Lawrence Journal-World,

Editorial: Steer clear of activist money

A comprehensive study of the criminal justice system in Douglas County is something county commissioners should consider, but they shouldn’t accept money from Justice Matters to pay for it.

Justice Matters is a faith-based activist group that campaigned against the county’s proposed sales tax increase to pay for an expanded county jail and a mental health crisis center. Voters shot down the proposal in May, and the county continues to seek options for expanding the jail, which has more inmates than its 186 beds can accommodate.

This week, Justice Matters presented commissioners with an offer of $30,000 toward the cost of a comprehensive study into reducing the incarceration rate at the jail. Brent Hoffman of Justice Matters said the group has a donor willing to contribute the funding for the study. But the money comes with conditions, including that the donor remain anonymous and that the study be conducted by one of three firms — The Justice Management Institute, Vera Institute of Justice or Justice System Partners. Justice Matters estimates that the study would take six to eight months to complete.

There is cause for the county to undertake such a study, most notably to try to understand the factors that have led to steep increases in the county’s jail population despite decreases in arrests. The county never has been able to adequately explain that discrepancy, which hampered officials’ efforts to sell a $44 million jail expansion project to voters.

But if the county goes down a path of conducting a comprehensive criminal justice system study, it should do so without Justice Matters and its anonymous donor’s money. Fair or not, partnering with Justice Matters and accepting financial contributions from the organization would affect the perception of the results.

The county already has underway a National Association of Counties study of how to further reduce the county jail’s population of those with mental illness. And a study is to get underway soon that will explore why people of color are incarcerated in the county jail at a rate higher than their percentage of the county’s population.

Perhaps those studies will provide the county with the answers it needs on the jail. At a minimum, the county should ensure that, if a comprehensive study is undertaken, it works to complement the data being collected in the other studies.

Justice Matters has offered a good idea that the county should follow up on. But that’s where Justice Matters’ role should end. Taking money from Justice Matters for the project could skew public perception of the results and undercut the credibility of the study.

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