Protecting kids is job one, but this Kansas proposal would just create new criminals | Opinion

  • In US
  • 2023-02-20 12:30:00Z
  • By Kansas City Star

When something horrific happens to a child, the impulse is to take every action necessary to ensure it never happens to any child anywhere again. That tendency is understandable and often praiseworthy - but there are times it can also be destructive.

So it goes with "Lailah's Law," a bill now under consideration in the Kansas House. The legislation is named for a 7-year-old Wichita girl who was assaulted and nearly killed in 2017 by Corbin Breitenbach, who had recently been paroled on a previous conviction of sexual assault. Corrections officials had approved him to live at his mother's house and ordered him not to consume alcohol. He assaulted Lailah after a night of drinking at his girlfriend's house, a violation of those terms.

Lailah is a teenager now. Her family is asking legislators to require people who live with parolees to report when those ex-offenders aren't home during required hours - or else face misdemeanor charges punishable with fines and jail time if the parolee commits a new crime.

The family's anger is understandable, as is their desire to find a solution.

But we cannot support the proposed bill, which has the potential to criminalize thousands of blameless Kansans and upend the already-fragile systems of support for ex-offenders reentering society.

The Kansas Department of Corrections reports that it is supervising more than 6,000 parolees. Like ex-offenders across the country, many of those people have limited resources - no money, no job, no place to stay - when they leave prison. A good number of them rely on the kindness of family, friends and other loved ones to provide a place to live while they get back on their feet.

"That's already their biggest challenge," said Steven McDowell, a parole attorney for the public defender's office across the border in Missouri. "They probably know a handful of people who have a spare room."

But those spare rooms will be much harder to come by if those family and friends know that their act of generosity could end up making them criminally liable for the ex-offenders who share their living spaces.

Corrections officials "informally polled parole officers who estimated approximately 25 to 50% of current family members or friends who are providing housing for an offender may decline to do so if the bill were enacted," Adam Proffitt, the state budget director, wrote in a memorandum to Kansas legislators. Where would those ex-offenders go? The state certainly doesn't have the capacity to house them.

Rather than curb the actions of parolees, the bill would actually expand the number of people who come in contact with the state's justice system.

"The bill would … increase the number of cases filed in district courts because it creates a new crime associated with failure to make a required report," Proffitt noted. And in an ironic turn, he said, that would actually create more offenders for the courts and corrections system to supervise.

We are already leery of rising efforts by state governments to deputize the public. In Texas, where legislators invited private citizens to prosecute state antiabortion laws in civil courts, we see the potential for such laws to sow division and pit neighbor against neighbor.

Yet we cannot forget about Lailah. Corbin Breitenbach is now justifiably serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. He will never see the outside of a prison again. But she remains haunted by his crime against her.

"I think that none of this would have probably even happened if somebody would have just … called him in," she told a legislative committee this week.

We sympathize. No child should ever have to experience what she has been through.

But we don't believe the answer is to make the transition back to society much more difficult for the vast majority of ex-offenders who are just trying to get back on their feet, nor to punish family and friends for the crime of giving parolees a place to rest their heads. The Kansas Legislature should search for a better solution.


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