A Parsons man, sentenced by a judge in 2017 to a shorter prison term than the plea deal called for, will have to serve about two years more after an appellate court called his 2017 sentence an error and ordered him to be resentenced.
Christopher L. Stephens, 41, of Parsons was convicted of trafficking contraband in a correctional facility, a felony. At that time, he also would be serving a prison term for contributing to a child’s misconduct and criminal possession of a firearm.
The 2016 case relates to Stephens bringing marijuana to the Labette County Jail. This is a level five felony, punishable by up to 136 months in prison (a little over 11 years).
Stephens is a category A offender under Kansas Sentencing Guidelines (the highest level), which means he has at least three crimes against persons in his criminal history. Rather than sentencing him to the standard term of 122 to 136 months, his attorney and the prosecutor agreed to a shorter prison term of 43 months, the same time agreed to in 2017.
At sentencing in June 2017, Judge Jeffry L. Jack sentenced Stephens to 16 months in prison.
According to a transcript of the sentencing, Jack said he was troubled by the 43-month term agreed to in the plea. He compared the trafficking crime, a level five felony, to another level five crime, involuntary manslaughter, and to less serious crimes, including aggravated assault on a law officer with a deadly weapon.
“[T]he guidelines are saying ... that being caught with a marijuana smoking device, with a little bit of residue in it, should be punished the same as shooting at a law enforcement officer. I just don’t think that’s ... right,” Jack said at the time.
He said the trafficking crime does not rise to that level.
“I think I have to use my judgment and temper what I think would be a[n] inequitable and unjust application of the law to the particular facts in this case,” Jack said.
After announcing the sentence, Jack then added another factor into his decision: Stephens took responsibility for his actions.
The Labette County Attorney’s Office appealed the sentence.
The Kansas Court of Appeals ruled in January 2019 that Jack abused his discretion when applying the law differently to a crime based on what he perceived as a disparity in the sentences set by the Legislature for different crimes. The justices sent the case back for resentencing.
Stephens served about 58 months total for the contraband case and on other unrelated charges. He was released from prison in September 2019 and was to be released from parole supervision in late February.
This week, Judge Steve Stockard took up Stephens’ resentencing.
David Markham, Stephens’ attorney, and Labette County Attorney Stephen Jones both asked for Stephens to get the agreed upon prison term, 43 months. Markham noted the amount of marijuana was small.
Stephens testified briefly about staying out of trouble and working since his release from prison. Markham asked him if he learned anything from his last prison term.
“Yeah. Don’t do that again,” Stephens said.
He said he brought a small amount of marijuana into the jail in 2016. He had been furloughed for his daughter’s graduation. He said he regrets doing that.
Stephens told the probation officer writing the presentence investigation report in 2017 that he and cellmates were smoking marijuana in the cell. A jailer came back and Stephens grabbed the cell-made pipe and stuffed it in his waistband, where it was found by the jailer, according to the appellate ruling. He didn’t say he brought the marijuana into the jail.
Stockard noted that the amount of marijuana, no matter how much was found, was irrelevant because it violated facility rules. He thought Stephens just compounded his involvement in the crime by adding details to what he told the probation officer in 2017. He said because of that he didn’t hear much to convince him that circumstances supported a shorter sentence.
“The state agreed to an incredible departure considering the criminal history, down to 43 months,” Stockard said, and the defense argued that the prison term was reasonable. He said Stephens was getting the benefit of the bargain and more in his estimation.
“It did trouble me when I saw the motion that came through that has been withdrawn concerning a request for something beyond what the agreement of the parties was,” Stockard said, referring to an original defense filing seeking probation rather than prison for Stephens.
Stockard agreed to sentence Stephens to 43 months in prison for trafficking contraband based on the agreement of the attorneys and the facts that Stephens has done well on parole supervision and he is remorseful. He will get credit for time served, but attorneys didn’t have an exact number of days to apply to that credit this week. He may have a little more than two years to serve.
Stockard also agreed to allow Stephens to delay reporting to jail until 5 p.m. Feb. 4 because of the COVID-19 outbreak there.
In another case, James L. Paulson, 38, Parsons, stipulated Thursday that he violated his probation in two 2019 cases, alleging aggravated battery, aggravated assault, both felonies, and endangering a child, a misdemeanor, and agreed to serve 48 months in prison. He will receive credit for 217 days served in jail previously in the cases plus credit for his time served since his arrest on July 9, 2020.