A committee of Kansas judges and attorneys says cities need to reduce the costs of appearing in municipal court.
The Kansas Supreme Court appointed the ad hoc committee last September to assess whether the state’s municipal courts impose an unreasonable financial burden on low-income people.
A report released Wednesday lists more than a dozen suggestions to reduce or simplify fees, bail and monetary fines that come with being arrested and charged with a crime.
In a press conference, members of the committee said they hadn’t found evidence of widespread abuse of court-imposed costs in Kansas. But Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the state Supreme Court said he wants to prevent abuses seen in other states.
“Just because we don’t hear about things,” Nuss said, “doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”
Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said appearing in court, even for minor charges, can be extremely stressful for many people.
“We want them to feel that not only they experienced, but they also witnessed equal justice under the law, and also consistency in the application of the law,” he said.
Courts impose bail and bond payments to prevent people from skipping future court dates after they are arrested and charged with a crime. Failure to pay bail or post bond can land a person in jail, sometimes for weeks or months, until their court date arrives.
The committee report recommends alternatives to cash bail and bond for people without the means to pay for their release, arguing that keeping poor people in jail could be interpreted as discriminatory and a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
One suggestion is releasing people on “personal recognizance,” essentially forcing them to promise to return for a future court date. Other alternatives include individually assessing each person’s flight risk following arrest to determine whether they should be required to post bond, and allowing them to sign a poverty affidavit swearing that they can’t afford the payment.
Other recommendations include:
● allowing people to pay off fines by performing community service
● waiving fines and court fees after a period of several years
● reminding people about court dates and due payments through texts, cell phone calls and emails
● reducing the use of driver’s license suspensions as a punishment for not paying fines
● offering payment options online and on the phone
The committee reviewed survey results from 172 of Kansas’s nearly 400 municipal courts, and found that many of them have already implemented these policies. The report includes a recommendation to teach city and court employees about bail reform and fee and fine reduction measures.
Sartorius said the League of Kansas Municipalities will help the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration train those employees, including through the state’s annual professional conferences for court clerks and judges.
“We want to make sure all of the components of a city have an understanding of what a municipal court does,” Sartorius said, “and what its purpose is.”
Nomin Ujiyediin 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 @NominUJ.
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