Majority of charges against Kansas Holistic Defenders’ clients get dismissed, report shows

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Grant has also allowed nonprofit to defend tenants in eviction cases

The attorneys of Kansas Holistic Defenders saw two-thirds of their clients’ misdemeanor charges dismissed or poised for likely dismissal from September 2022 through September 2023.

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KHD is a nonprofit organization that contracts with the county to defend people who are charged with misdemeanors in Douglas County District Court. It also aims to provide services to help clients deal with other factors connected to their cases, such as seeking drug and alcohol assessments, getting treatment, connecting with immigration services or domestic violence services and more.

During that yearlong window, 35% of KHD clients’ charges were resolved with dismissals as a result of litigation, and another 18.4% were dismissed as part of plea deals, according to KHD Executive Director of Litigation Sam Allison-Natale’s report to the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday.

Sam Allison-Natale

On top of that, 13.7% of charges were resolved with diversions, meaning that as long as the client completes the requirements of an agreement with the district attorney’s office, their case will be dismissed.

Allison-Natale told commissioners that racial disparities that have long been evident in Douglas County’s criminal legal system are reflected in KHD’s statistics, as well.

Among statistics that researchers have brought to light in recent years, Black people were booked into the Douglas County jail at almost four times the rate of white people in 2021, and the incarceration rate of Black people in Douglas County was 6.5 times the rate of white people, according to a study presented to the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in 2022. The racial disparities had actually worsened from a similar study of 2019 data.

Of KHD’s 480 total clients, 22.1% are Black, 7.5% are Indigenous and 56.7% are white, according to the report. For comparison, Black people constitute 4.8% of Douglas County’s population; American Indian and Alaska Native people 2.7%; and white people 83.1%, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Almost one-quarter of the charges that were dismissed as a result of litigation were charges against KHD’s Black clients; so were nearly one-third of charges dismissed as part of pleas, according to the report.

“There are many reasons for this, but I think a lot of the time it is because the charges should have never been brought in the first place, and Black people are more likely to be wrongfully charged due to a variety of systemic reasons,” Allison-Natale said.

Kansas Holistic Defenders case outcomes by race and gender from September 2022 – September 2023

He said that was also true for Indigenous clients — 7.3% of charges dismissed as a result of litigation were against Indigenous clients.

“Our goal is obviously to win for each and every client, but our hope is that by vigorously fighting every case, we are able to make sure that we’re a check on the racial and systemic biases within the system,” he said.

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Single cases can involve more than one charge, so a charge being dismissed does not necessarily mean a case was dismissed. Allison-Natale presented statistics on cases, as well.

Altogether, 135 cases were dismissed from September 2022 through September 2023, and 63 cases were resolved with a diversion — that’s 63.4% of KHD’s 312 completed cases for that time period, according to the report.

Another 21% of cases resolved with probation; 14% resolved with jail time, and 90% of those cases were sentenced to time served, Allison-Natale said.

Allison-Natale told commissioners that the September to September reporting period was because KHD’s last report had measured from September, but also because the collapse of the statewide court record system in October made it difficult to access and validate data through court records.

KHD also received a state grant that has allowed the organization to start defending clients in eviction cases.

Since October, KHD has defended 20 clients in completed eviction cases; 17 of those have been “dismissed or decided substantially in favor of the tenant,” according to the report. In two of the other three cases, the tenants were given at least one additional month to move before the eviction judgment went into effect, so they had more time to find a new place and avoid homelessness, Allison-Natale said.

Commission Chair Karen Willey said she didn’t know how the statistics compare with cases handled by panel attorneys, by the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, or globally, and she would like to see that information in a future report.

“It’s hard for me to read through and know what pieces to celebrate especially,” she said.

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Allison-Natale said he’s really happy with the numbers, but he doesn’t know how they stack up, either. He said there is a professor at a Texas university interested in looking into doing that type of data analysis, but they’re trying to find a funder to pay for the data entry and analysis.

He said they’re also hoping to get grant funding to study the efficacy of Kansas Holistic Defenders compared to panel attorneys during periods when KHD was not taking new cases. That grant would also give the organization funds for a data management position within the office, “allowing us to do even more of this kind of analysis or potentially help the county with data analysis around criminal justice issues,” he said. 

Going forward, Allison-Natale said KHD will need to give staff raises. The staff unionized with Teamsters Local 696 in June, and Allison-Natale said they negotiated a contract with “a solid package of wages, benefits, case caps and protections for workers.”

In addition, he said KHD hopes to add a social worker to its staff to help clients seek mental health services, complete evaluations and more. 

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for April 22-28, 2024

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