Gov. Laura Kelly signs off on plan to suspend speedy trial requirements until 2023 after pandemic backlogs courts

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Plexiglass barriers installed in a Wichita courtroom for jury trials. Such trials were being paused for a long time due to the pandemic and have put speedy trial statutes in jeopardy.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed off Wednesday on suspending statutory requirements dictating when Kansans must be tried, a move designed to help the state's court system clear a backlog of cases that have accumulated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kansas is one of at least a dozen states that have provisions in their state law enshrining a defendant's right to a speedy trial. Under current law, a case must be brought to trial within 150 days, or 180 days if someone is out on bail.

Otherwise, those cases must be dismissed and can't be brought again.

More:Advocates, lawyers split on pausing key trial requirement due to pandemic

But those provisions will be suspended until May 2023, a plan agreed to by both prosecutors and defense and one which gained bipartisan approval in the Kansas Legislature.

Jury trials are beginning to resume in many parts of the state, but the process has been a slow one. Meanwhile, there are more than 5,000 cases that have piled up since the pandemic began, and attorneys and judges caution that it will take some time to clear them, especially if COVID-19 protocols slow down the trial process.

"We have serious cases we have to attend to," Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told legislators earlier this session. "And I don't want to get to the point where I have to choose which murder case to prosecute."

The bill doesn't alter speedy trial protections given to defendants under the U.S. Constitution. But critics remain concerned about Kansans languishing in jail for a prolonged period of time and worry that the court system will drag its feet in getting back up and running.

“Defendants in Kansas should not be denied their rights because of the incompetency of our judicial system,” Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, said in explaining his opposition to the bill in February.