State looks at prison spending

Associated PressAugust 10, 2009 

FRANKFORT — State lawmakers are looking at options for the General Assembly to consider during its 2010 legislative session intended to curb the state's soaring prison population and free up cash for other productive expenses — such as education.

As Kentucky's budget funds become increasingly scarce, lawmakers are looking to free up money to spend elsewhere. Lawmakers have been considering options to shrink, or at least slow, Kentucky's prison population.

It's a persistent problem, without easy answers.

"The current rate of growth of putting people in prison in Kentucky is not sustainable," Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson told a legislative panel on the judiciary last week. "The potential solutions are not about being soft on crime, but are about rethinking how we deal with offenders in a way that lowers the cost."

Kentucky was facing a $1 billion budget shortfall in the fiscal year that began last month. But lawmakers closed the budget gap through cuts and a reliance on more than $740 million in federal economic stimulus money.

Gov. Steve Beshear has not yet announced the extent of pending budget cuts in the current fiscal year.

But the cost of running state prisons doesn't help.

Kentucky has about 22,000 inmates. Last year's corrections budget was about $457 million.

That's a fairly large chunk of money to some, considering the state budget is about $9.4 billion a year.

Adkisson said money for prisons, and money for Medicaid and public employee health insurance, is changing Kentucky's priorities and shifting its focus away from education. Instead, Adkisson said, the state should consider an expansion of Kentucky drug courts, possible privatization of prisons and a change in persistent felony offender laws that require mandatory sentences.

"The state is consciously or unconsciously shifting its priorities away from education toward some of these things that are driving the state budget," Adkisson said. "Kentucky is spending more to address the cost of failing to invest in education than it is on students."

Still, the question has been a lingering issue.

The Kentucky Criminal Justice Council last year offered the legislature a report filled with recommendations on how the state might reduce its prison population while maintaining public safety.

Among other things, the report said the state might change some of its drug laws to reduce penalties. It also recommended making possession of less than a gram of cocaine a misdemeanor instead of a felony and raising the felony theft threshold from $300 to $500.

Lawmakers earlier this year responded by approving legislation that would offer first time non-violent drug offenders a diversion program that would offer long-term treatment.

Todd County Attorney Harold Mac Johns told the Interim Judiciary Committee he thinks the state should require more supervision or monitoring of misdemeanor drug offenders. Johns said many career criminals start out committing low-level misdemeanors before graduating to more serious crimes.

Nevertheless, as a prosecutor, it's difficult to find people who are in prison who don't deserve to be there, Johns said last week.

"I try to see who we need to get out," Johns said. "A lot of times I can't find it because they earned it."

Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown said the state has a constitutional responsibility to deal with its inmates and treat them humanely. Treatment and rehabilitation programs for inmates are necessary to reduce the rate at which people commit additional crimes, Brown said.

"We have a baseline responsibility to at least 21,000 people that we house every day, and we have to feed them. We have to give them medical attention," Brown said. "The same costs that go up for any other household go up when it comes to clothes, food, utilities or anything else."

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