Kansas has some of the strictest offender registration requirements in the country. Could that change?
Seven years ago, Dany Kravitz didn't think he could get clean.
He was homeless, crashing on couches and pushed his family to the point where they were done with him due to his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Things came to a head when he was arrested in a Pottawatomie County motel room with methamphetamine. A judge opted against sending him to prison as part of a plea deal, instead ordering probation and a mandatory rehab stint.
Initially, Kravitz said he didn't think he would take the treatment seriously. But en route to Topeka to enter rehab, something clicked.
"A light bulb went off, and I thought, 'You know, maybe there's something to this,'" he said. "And I gave it a shot. And lo and behold, I liked it."
Fast forward and Kravitz is married, set to buy a 16-acre farm on the Jackson-Jefferson county line. He has been gainfully employed ever since exiting rehab and hasn't had a drink or done drugs since.
"I had lived that life so long that I didn't really realize there was another way of living until I started living it," Kravitz said. "I had no idea I'd be sitting here, where I am today."
In March, Kravitz and his attorney, Wes Smith, petitioned the court to expunge the case from his record. Prosecutors and even with the judge agreed he was a worthy candidate for such a move, which would have helped his job prospects and allowed him to put his conviction firmly in the rearview mirror.
But state law stood in the way.
Because he was convicted of a specific felony drug crime, Kravitz had to register with the state under the Kansas Offender Registration Act, an onerous, ongoing process. He has seven more years of registration in front of him and, until that time is complete, he is ineligible for expungement. There is no way to get out of the requirement early.
"We leave conviction and the administration of justice to the court and with the registry we've put it in the hands of the legislature," Smith, the lead attorney on Kravitz's case, said. "And that's too bad. Because the judge takes away your liberties, in terms of conviction, and can give them back through an expungement. With real, live evidence and witnesses and taking everything into account. And if you're subject to the registry, you just can't get that relief."
Unlike many other states, the Kansas Offender Registry Act goes beyond sex offenders and requires those convicted of many drug and violent offenses to comply with its directives, which include registering with the sheriff in a person's county of residence four times a year, paying a fee each time. Changes big or small, ranging from getting a new job to getting a new tattoo, require check-ins as well.
Violating these provisions, even unwittingly, carries stiff penalties that often can dwarf the original sentence a person was serving in the first place.
According to the Kansas Sentencing Commission, 454 individuals are serving either a prison sentence or probation for violation of the registry act as of Fiscal Year 2019, the most recent year data was available. Those numbers have been steadily rising in recent years.
This has prompted lawmakers to consider whether to soften penalties for violating the act under certain circumstances, as well as creating a way for those like Kravitz who were convicted of a non-violent drug offense to get off the registry early.
The idea meets an uncertain future in the state Legislature but has been a longtime area of focus for criminal justice reform proponents, in Kansas and nationally, who believe these types of registries do little to improve public safety.
"I've heard Supreme Court judges and district court judges say: 'This is confusing. This is hard to follow. The law changes all the time,'" said Jennifer Roth, a public defender with the Kansas Appellate Defender Office. "And if people who are law trained and do law work every day have trouble understanding how registration works and what's expected of people, imagine what it must be like for the people who are subject to it."
‘I'm not quite sure what purpose putting it up on the internet serves’
Offender registries date back to the 1930s, when local governments in California embraced them as a way of tracking scofflaws coming from the Midwest and East Coast, said Wayne Logan, a professor at Florida State University College of Law.
The area gained new life in the 1990s in the wake of a high-profile abduction in Washington state, prompting community notification requirements in a bid to help residents better track who is living in their neighborhoods.
Ed Klumpp, a former chief of the Topeka Police Department and legislative liaison for the Kansas Peace Officers Association, said the community notification component still remains popular, even though that takes place online now, rather than via a community forum or other means.
"Anytime we go to community meetings and things like that, the ability to know who is in their neighborhoods that are certain levels of offenders is important, too," Klumpp said. "And we hear that over and over again. We think there's value in the offender registry, but also we have to balance that value with the restoration of the offenders themselves."
But Kansas has some of the tightest registration requirements in the country.
Individuals must report to the sheriff in the county in which they live and work at least four times a year to confirm their whereabouts, paying a $20 fee each time. Any change to employment status, school attendance and a host of other factors requires an individual to make a separate trip.
In addition, all email addresses and social media profiles must be provided to local law enforcement and an offender must provide the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the entity which maintains the registry, with 21 days' notice before any travel outside the United States, as well as a detailed itinerary.
When the registry was introduced in the state in 1994, it focused on those convicted of repeated sex crimes. But over the years it has added a range of crimes, everything from possession with an intent to distribute to sex offenders who were prosecuted as a juvenile.
A person can be required to register for anywhere from 15 years to life, depending on the type and severity of the offense.
"It's very difficult for people to see this on my record," said Kravitz, who wants his record expunged. "And I mean, granted, it's my fault. I take full responsibility, I did it. But 15 years — you'd think I'd murdered somebody. I mean, it's ridiculous."
Logan noted there is a body of evidence that these types of registries do little to improve public safety. A 2010 study from the Medical University of South Carolina, for instance, found that those registered as sex offenders were no less likely to re-offend than those who were not registered.
Other studies have found that registration is an effective deterrent, but there is no policy benefit to making them public record.
"I'm not quite sure what purpose putting it up on the internet serves, except for shaming them," Logan said. "And that's what penal sanctions are about, right? I mean, that's fine. If that is what you're going to do, that's what you're doing. But these laws are usually justified in other ways than simple shaming."
Individuals who don't comply face felony charges, prison time
Not complying means stiff penalties — a first violation is a level six felony, akin to the penalty for arson. Each 30-day window where a person is out of compliance is considered a separate offense, and three or more offenses constitutes a level three felony, which is on the same level as voluntary manslaughter.
Roth, with the Kansas Appellate Defender Office, noted most violations were inadvertent, with a person not knowing they had to notify authorities changes as minute as getting a tattoo.
One client was charged after being pulled over in a friend's car, as he did not tell authorities it was a vehicle he usually drove, even though that was not the case.
Even if an individual later corrects the mistake and presents themselves to the authorities, they can still be slapped with a felony. Roth said she had a client who was serving a prison sentence 11 times longer than their original sentence for failing to comply with the registration act.
"I think sometimes people think to violate the registry these people were hiding or intentionally lying about their address or something like that," Roth said. "And that is not actually the case."
Could lawmakers pursue changes to registry act?
Recommendations from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission, a panel of legislators, judges, lawyers and criminal justice experts, would change this, endorsing the provisions of a previously introduced bill, House Bill 2349, to loosen penalties for non-compliance.
Depending on the severity of the underlying crime, a first offense violation would now generally be a misdemeanor and it would only carry a presumptive prison sentence for willful violations of the law.
Klumpp acknowledged not every violation of the law rises to a serious level, but he said more flagrant violations do occur.
Law enforcement groups would wait to see what type of language actually was considered by the legislature before weighing in, he said, but any change should acknowledge different types of actions require different penalties.
"There's different levels of non-compliance," he said. "And the plans we have seen to change that doesn't really recognize that, it's like a one-size-fits-all change."
Another recommendation would provide an off-ramp for those convicted of non-violent drug offenses, meaning individuals like Kravitz could find relief.
Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, and a member of the reform commission, said he was unsure the measures would be considered when legislators return to Topeka in January, but he noted it was time to have the discussion.
"At some point, we have got to recognize that the vast majority of people in the system are going to be back in our communities," Owens said. "Do we want to foster an environment that is perpetually punitive and never allows that to occur? Or doesn't allow it to occur for you know, 10 or 15 years? Those are the questions that we've really got to have a deep conversation about."
Roth said she was optimistic changes would come, though she said they were only the beginning of what was ultimately required.
"If it's true that we believe in redemption and we believe in people's ability to change and we want people to be productive members of society, then we have to do something about this," she said. "Because the way it's structured right now, and the way it works, runs counter to those values that we supposedly have."
Kravitz echoed that sentiment, pointing to his own story as evidence the state should not box in those who show growth and redemption.
"Just because you've made mistakes in your life does not mean you're always going to be that person," he said. "We all deserve a chance to get past this."
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.