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Supreme Court orders release of parole data

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         KANSAS         Freedom of Information         Jul 25, 2002    

Supreme Court orders release of parole data

  • Reaffirming the state’s open records law, Kansas’ highest court ruled that documents and information concerning parolees must be made available to the public.

The Kansas Supreme Court on July 12 ruled that the State Department of Corrections must honor a newspaper’s 1999 request and release all information in parolees’ records that is not part of a parole officer’s personal notes and opinions or prepared in anticipation of litigation.

The court remanded the case back to the district court in Shawnee County to review the records and issue a new order releasing the information, consistent with their decision.

Rick Thames, editor of The Wichita Eagle, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“This is probably the most sweeping ruling involving the Open Records Act,” he said. “It opens up specific records and also clarifies a number of open record issues in the state.”

The decision concludes The Wichita Eagle’s three-year battle with the Department of Corrections to get parole data released.

In 1999, reporter Robert Short sought corrections records that would identify persons convicted of murder or manslaughter and released on parole from1996 through 1999. The paper wanted information about the crimes and records that reviewed serious incidents involving parolees.

Thames said the newspaper became concerned about public safety and requested the information after several citizens were injured or killed by people on parole. He said the newspaper was especially eager to see findings of the Serious Incident Review Board, an internal board within the Department of Corrections that reviews procedures after a parolee has committed a major crime while out on parole.

“Releasing this information is clearly in the public’s interest,” Thames said.

He added that the information should help the public understand how well the system monitors parolees and learn whether the conclusions and recommendations made by the review board are implemented.

The department gave the newspaper information about parolees who were convicted

for crimes they committed between 1996 and 1999 but denied records related to the review board or identifying or discussing parolees who were charged during that time period with murder or manslaughter while they were on parole.

The department cited a law that prohibited release of information regarding “supervision history.” It said some records were also protected by the work product exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act. And it also argued that the records could be obtained from alternative sources.

When the newspaper sued for the records, Shawnee County District Court Judge Eric Rosen denied them, saying that disclosure would discourage the department from conducting self-critical evaluation.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed. It said the state’s commitment to open records requires that Department of Corrections records be considered for release. The personal notes of a parole officer and any information that was prepared in anticipation of trial were exempt from disclosure, but the department must release all of the documents that do not fall under the exemptions.

William P. Tretbar, attorney for The Wichita Eagle, said the district court is likely to release all of the requested documents that do not fall within the attorney work product exemption.

(Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Co. v. Simmons; Media counsel: William P. Tretbar, Wichita) JLW

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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