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Lawmakers take up backlog of court cases caused by pandemic

March 18, 2021 GMT

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.

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.

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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. House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said he’s inclined to ask the House next week to approve the Senate’s version of the speedy trial bill and send it to Gov. Laura Kelly.

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

Meanwhile, Republican legislators have revived an effort to make sure that all Kansas public school students can return to in-person classes full-time by the end of the month.

The House is expected to consider a measure next week that would set a March 31 deadline. A House committee approved the measure earlier this week after the chamber rejected a proposal approved by the Senate to require the state’s 286 districts to offer full-time in-person classes by March 26.

The Senate’s measure would have been a permanent mandate, and some Republicans in the House had misgivings, fearing it would conflict with another measure lawmakers have passed. That bill says local boards of education will determine whether K-12 school buildings close during future pandemics.

The new House proposal applies only during the current school year. State Board of Education data shows that only five school districts don’t plan to have most of their students back in full-time in-person classes by then. The largest is Kansas City, Kansas, which has set its return for April 5.

With cases falling across the state, 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, such as at Kansas State University, said president Richard Myers.

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Chancellor Doug Girod said the University of Kansas 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, that demand for hotel rooms for the make-up commencement ceremonies is far outpacing demand for the normal commencement.

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.