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Kansas lawmakers debate definition of ‘female’ and ‘male’ for county jails

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TOPEKA — A bill meant to help overburdened county jails is still under debate after lawmakers rolled portions of a “women’s bill of rights” into the legislation.

Sheriffs and elected officials from Sedgwick and Finney Counties repeatedly asked lawmakers to help with ongoing county jail workforce shortages and mental health crises. In many cases, people deemed a danger to themselves or others are reviewed by the district attorney’s office, and are sent to the county jail until a hospital bed is ready. Because of shortages of mental health care workers and beds for patients, community hospitals and jails in western Kansas have had to pick up the slack, housing mentally unstable patients without state reimbursement.

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The legislation provides reimbursement to counties for the costs of  housing people awaiting examination, evaluation or treatment for competency, giving a rate of $100 per day for each person. The bill also has other provisions modifying antiquated county jail procedures and contracts.

In negotiations between the two chambers, senators amended the bill to clarify men and women should always be kept in separate rooms and defined these classifications as the “biological state of being female or male based on the individual’s sex organs, chromosomes, and endogenous hormone profiles.” 

Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, called the changes “problematic” and said senators essentially took the definition of sex from Senate Bill 180. That bill uses a politically charged definition of “women” to exclude transgender women from gender-specific public spaces. Under the bill, only those with female reproductive systems are classified as women.

Highberger said this language would require chromosome checking, along with other procedures that jails aren’t equipped to handle.

“It doesn’t address the question of intersex people, who don’t fall into either category,” Highberger said. “This bill amendment is going to create problems where there aren’t any now. Our county jails all across the state are dealing with this. They didn’t ask for this change, this came from the Senate.”

Republicans executed a procedural move to exclude Democrats from working out a compromise on the bill. Negotiations on a final product were underway Wednesday night.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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