Ky.'s prison reform a model for nation with lower costs, recidivism

September 26, 2013 

Nearly two months ago, when the U.S. attorney general announced major reforms for the Justice Department, those of us who oversee Kentucky's criminal justice system couldn't help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu.

That's because the problems noted in the federal system — skyrocketing prison populations coupled with limited options for drug treatment and alternative sentencing programs — are remarkably similar to the problems Kentucky faced several years ago, and the proposed solutions are largely modeled after the landmark criminal justice reforms that have governed our state for the last two years.

The groundwork for this was laid in 2010, when leaders of all three branches of state government came together to see how we could begin reversing the 45 percent growth Kentucky's prison system witnessed during the previous decade, a rate nearly four times the national average.

Staying the course, especially at a time of budget cuts and a crime rate that was not improving, was both unsustainable and unwise.

A bipartisan, inter-branch task force I was proud to co-chair sought out solutions from anyone who had a stake in the outcome, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims' advocates and local officials. Helping guide us was the Pew Center on the States, a non-profit organization that has extensive knowledge in this area.

The result of this work was House Bill 463, which became law in 2011 with only one dissenting vote. Since then, its successes have started to mount.

In the reform's first year, for example, no state throughout the South saw a steeper decline in its prison population than Kentucky, according to a recent analysis by the Southern Legislative Conference.

Since July 2012, meanwhile, our prison population has declined by more than eight percent, putting us well below what had been projected before reform.

At the same time, a Kentucky State Police comparison of serious crimes over much of the reform's first year found drops in such crimes as murder, rape, robberies and assaults.

Meanwhile, the state's recidivism rate — the percentage of prisoners who, after completing their sentence, commit another crime — dropped by four percent, to the lowest rate in more than a decade.

In short, reform has truly been a win-win situation for public safety and the taxpayer. As a result, we're on track to save more than $400 million by the end of this decade.

Helping all of this along has been a steep increase in the number of available slots for inmate substance abuse treatment.

That figure has jumped from 1,430 in 2007 to almost 6,000 this year, giving thousands of additional prisoners an opportunity to escape an addiction that is often the root of their crimes.

Another component of HB 463's success is the six months of mandatory supervision for eligible prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, which is helping them make a successful transition back into society.

This alone has already saved the state more than $16 million.

Counties are also saving millions of dollars in pre-trial costs — an effort that is drawing national attention by itself — and we have been able to cut ties with private prisons, enabling us to consolidate resources further.

Many of us who have had a hand in this reform took time yesterday at a press conference to note the gains we have made — and to rally around the next challenge, which will be modernizing the state's juvenile justice code.

By January, suggestions from an ongoing legislative task force will be in the General Assembly's hands.

There is no doubt that the success of HB 463 has had an impact in Washington.

I had the opportunity to speak with members of the U.S. attorney general's office earlier this year, letting them know what is taking place here in the commonwealth, and I also have spoken with many on Capitol Hill.

Our work is getting noticed, because it is getting results. Our citizens should be proud of both the leadership we are providing and our willingness to do even more.

If state governments are the laboratories of democracy, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Louisville native Louis Brandeis once said, it is vital that we continue to blaze the path forward for others to follow.

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