When something horrible happens to a child, the impetus is to take whatever action is necessary to ensure it never happens to any child anywhere again. This trend is understandable and often laudable, but it can also be destructive at times.
So goes with the “Lailah Act,” a bill now before the Kansas House. The legislation is named after a 7-year-old Wichita girl who was attacked and nearly killed in 2017 by Corbin Breitenbach, who had recently been paroled for a previous sexual assault conviction. Prison officials had authorized him to live at his mother’s house and ordered him not to consume alcohol. He assaulted Lailah after a night of drinking at her girlfriend’s house, a violation of those terms.
Lailah is a teenager now. His family is calling on lawmakers to require people living with parolees to report when those ex-cons aren’t home during the required hours, or face misdemeanor charges punishable by fines and jail time if the convict 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 innocent Kansans and upend already fragile support systems for ex-convicts reentering society.
The Kansas Department of Corrections reports that it is supervising more than 6,000 parolees. Like ex-convicts across the country, many of these people have limited resources — no money, no job, no place to stay — when they get out of jail. A good number of them rely on the kindness of family, friends and other loved ones to give them somewhere to live while they get back on their feet.
“This is already their biggest challenge,” said Steven McDowell, a probation 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 vacant rooms will be much harder to find if those family members and friends know their act of generosity could end up making them criminally liable for ex-convicts sharing their living spaces.
Prison officials “informally interviewed parole officers who estimated that approximately 25-50 percent of current family members or friends who are providing housing for an offender could refuse to do so if the bill were enacted,” wrote Adam Proffitt, the state budget manager, in a memorandum to Kansas lawmakers. Where would those ex-cons go? The state certainly does not have the capacity to host them.
Rather than curb the actions of parolees, the bill would actually expand the number of people who come into contact with the state’s justice system.
“The bill would increase the number of cases filed in district courts because it creates a new offense associated with failing to file a required report,” Proffitt noted. And in an ironic twist, she said, that would actually create more offenders for the courts and the corrections system to oversee.
We are already wary of growing efforts by state governments to delegate the public. In Texas, where lawmakers have called on private citizens to pursue state anti-abortion laws in civil courts, we see the potential for such laws to sow division and pit neighbor against neighbor.
Yet we cannot forget Lailah. Corbin Breitenbach is now rightfully serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He will never see the outside of a prison again. But she remains haunted by her crime against her.
“I think none of this would probably have happened if someone had just… called him,” he told a legislative committee this week.
We are in solidarity. No child should ever experience what he has been through.
But we don’t believe the answer is to make returning to society that much more difficult for the vast majority of ex-convicts who are just trying to get back on their feet, nor to punish family and friends for the crime of granting parole a place where rest your head. The Kansas Legislature should look for a better solution.