Kentucky voices

Ky. Voices: State spending too much to lock people up

KY. criminal system is breaking budget

January 6, 2013 

Ernie Lewis, lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is the retired Kentucky Public Advocate.

University of Kentucky law professor Robert Lawson, an expert on this state's criminal justice system, summed up our current situation:

"We have seized every opportunity for three decades to make punishments harsher on criminals. We have elevated an untold number of misdemeanors to felonies, have pushed sentences higher through reclassification of crimes and the enactment of a wide assortment of penalty enhancements, and have eliminated parole for a long and ever-expanding list of serious offense."

Yet, Kentucky has an acute need for significant additional resources. These needs include meeting our pension obligations, funding our educational and judicial systems and Medicaid.

A source of money not yet considered is in our correctional system.

Kentucky spends almost $500 million per year to incarcerate and supervise more than 22,000 inmates and over 41,444 persons on probation and parole.

The state spends an additional $244 million on house misdemeanants and pretrial detainees.

Over 19,000 persons in Kentucky are presently housed in our jails, including over 8,000 incarcerated for a felony offense.

Almost 2 percent of the Kentucky population is in prison, jail, or on probation or parole.

To handle this growing population, we have increased spending by four times since 1990 without increasing public safety.

The Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers believes we can find additional resources by cutting corrections costs.

In 1980, Kentucky incarcerated only 3,723 inmates and spent only $28.7 million.

In 1990, Kentucky incarcerated 8,824 and spent $129.1 million.

By 2000, Kentucky incarcerated 15,444 and spent $273.9 million.

Today, we spend almost $500 million.

What if Kentucky set a goal to return to 2000 levels of incarceration and spending, or even 1990 levels?

Could we do so without compromising public safety? Remember that, at present, our crime rate is no better today than it was in 1970.

KACDL believes we can pass reasonable legislation that would decrease prison costs while at the same time protecting public safety.

Harvard University sociologist Bruce Western has stated that increased incarceration accounts for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime rates, while William Spelman, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, believes that the figure is closer to 25 percent.

There are commonsensical ways to spend less while maintaining public safety. Some or all of the following should be considered:

• Reclassify nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors.

• Reduce the number of people sentenced to prison without consideration for parole until they have served 85 percent of their time.

• Reform persistent felony offender laws. We now have 4,098 persons in prison on the Persistent Felony Offender law, up from only 79 in 1980.

As of 2011, we had incarcerated 7,792 persistent felony offenders and violent offenders at a cost of $169,193,925.

• Replace the death penalty with a life without parole sentence.

Kentucky has executed only one person involuntarily since 1976 when the modern death penalty was passed, and it is immensely costly. It can be replaced with life without parole sentence that can be used to house safely those who have committed the most aggravated crimes.

• Fund the public defender system. A fully funded public defender system is vital to ensure that only those persons who are guilty of the crime charged are placed into jail or prison.

An excellent public defender system is a cost-effective way to hold down the costs of incarceration.

• Raise the theft limit to $1,000. A person can be imprisoned for five years at a cost of over $20,000 per year for shoplifting an item worth $500 or more.

Is it reasonable for our taxpayers to spend $100,000 to warehouse a person who steals a set of golf clubs?

• Decriminalize nonsupport. Kentucky also houses many persons in our jails and prisons who fail to pay child support. Once they are imprisoned, their families are often placed into the welfare system.

We have better things to do with hundreds of millions of dollars than warehouse our citizens. As we are scouring our budget for additional resources, let's not forget this obvious choice.

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