FRANKFORT — Kentucky continues to overspend on state prisons despite much effort in recent years to save money by reducing the inmate population, lawmakers were told Thursday.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the state Corrections Department needed to take $20.5 million from a "necessary government expenses" account, in addition to the $477 million it was budgeted to spend.
The number of state inmates — including those serving time in prisons or local jails — is holding fairly steady at slightly fewer than 22,000, Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown told a joint budget committee of House and Senate members. That's about 1,700 more inmates than predicted last year by budget forecasters, who had hoped to see a sharp decline.
Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly have worked to cut the inmate population through several measures. Most notable was a penal code reform in 2011 that was supposed to save an estimated $42 million a year, in part by shifting non-violent drug offenders into addiction treatment and community supervision.
However, the Corrections Department has been slow to establish the addiction treatment programs necessary to help inmates return to society, lawmakers said Thursday. And the parole board is releasing fewer inmates than expected, although the board's chairman, Larry Chandler, said his colleagues are making thoughtful decisions in every case.
Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson said her agency is continually adding more slots in addiction treatment programs offered at some prisons, jails and community agencies.
"That will save the state millions of dollars, if we can solve that problem. It's the logjam," Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, told Thompson.
Brown told lawmakers that he expects progress in coming years as elements of the penal code reforms become more established in the justice system.
"Many of these programs — and indeed, the whole paradigm shift in attitude — is relatively new," Brown said.
The legislature doesn't have much choice but to be patient, said Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, the House member who oversees funding for justice and the judiciary.
"I think the best view of this is that it's taking time to implement everything," Crenshaw said after the hearing. "Hopefully, we will get to accomplish the kind of savings we were talking about, but it's going to take us some time to get there."
Part of the unexpectedly large inmate population was attributed Thursday to the parole board's approval of parole — or early release — in 46 percent of its 19,330 cases during the past fiscal year. Budget forecasters had predicted parole being granted 51 percent of the time.
That left 510 more inmates behind bars than predicted, which cost the state an additional $6 million, Brown told lawmakers. The average state inmate serves 17 months behind bars, with longer stints for violent and sex-related crimes and shorter stints for drug and property crimes.
Chandler, the parole board chairman, said there has been a lot of turnover on the board since last summer because the governor did not reappoint some of its nine members and the Senate would not confirm others. However, he said, each current member "is an accomplished professional" who seriously considers the individual facts of an inmate's case before making a decision.
"This is the rate that this parole board is producing," Chandler said. "My guess is, this is the parole rate that you're going to continue to see under this current board."
One budget-cutting element of last year's penal code reforms is "mandatory release supervision," which allows selected inmates to be released onto parole supervision within six months of the end of their sentences. Previously, many of those inmates would serve their full sentences and would be returned to the community with no subsequent supervision.
So far, 2,398 inmates have re-entered their communities through this program, according to data Brown gave lawmakers. Eighty percent have completed their release successfully or are following the rules. The rest — one in five — have been revoked for further problems, are back in custody and in the process of being revoked, or have absconded.
"Our goal here was to cut recidivism of this particular high-risk group significantly," Brown told the committee. "If you look at these numbers, I think we've done that."
John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.