With Kentucky’s prison population surging due to a drug addiction epidemic, Gov. Matt Bevin and Justice Secretary John Tilley urged state lawmakers Tuesday to approve legislation to control the growth and improve the prison environment.
While most other states’ prison populations are declining, Kentucky’s is set to increase by 19 percent over the next 10 years, overwhelming jails and prisons and burdening taxpayers with nearly $600 million in additional costs, Tilley said.
Kentucky’s prisons will run out of space by May 2019, making early release a possibility if nothing is done, he added.
Kentucky now has the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Bluegrass State ranked 11th highest in 2015.
The state’s prison population as of Tuesday was 24,155. Three years ago, on Feb. 20, 2015, it was 21,524.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s female incarceration rate is more than twice the national average and now stands at the second-highest in America. It was fifth-highest in 2015.
And three out of every five inmates in state custody have children, impacting about 32,700 children.
Bevin, at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda with Tilley and others, said Kentucky “can do better than this.”
He said there is no perfect solution but Kentucky “needs to chip away at this.”
Two bills in this year’s legislative session aim to help the problem.
Reps Kimberly Moser, R-Independence, and Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, plan to file a bill based on 22 recommendations from a special work group on the subject headed by Tilley.
Those recommendations included:
▪ Focusing prison and jail beds on serious and violent offenders by making first and second drug possession convictions misdemeanors.
▪ Raising the felony theft threshold from $500 to $2,000.
▪ Implementing a parole option for older prisoners. The work group recommended parole consideration at age 60 for inmates who have served 15 percent of their sentence. Excluded would be inmates sentenced to felony sex and violent offenses.
▪ Allowing judges to impose alternative sentences to incarceration for nonpayment of costs and fees.
▪ Establishing a streamlined parole process for low-level, nonviolent inmates.
Senate Bill 133, sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, primarily deals with procedures in the jailing of women. Among other things, it would require adequate nutrition and hygiene for pregnant inmates and ban the shackling of pregnant women when they are in labor.
It also would raise the threshold level for a Class D felony theft charge, punishable up to five years in prison, for all from $500 to $1,000 if the person has not been convicted twice of the same offense in the last two years.
Daniel Cameron, a spokesman for Kentucky Smart on Crime, a broad-based coalition working for justice reforms, said the “startling numbers” of prison growth in Kentucky “make passing bold criminal justice reforms even more urgent in this session of the Kentucky General Assembly.” The coalition includes the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and ACLU of Kentucky.
Wayne Turner of Bellevue, who was Kentucky Police Chief of the Year last year, said the proposed legislation is “smart on crime.”
Alaina Combs, a former drug addict who now is a continuing care coordinator for the Healing Place, a drug addiction and treatment center in Louisville, said she tells addicts “there is hope and we will help them find a way.”
She said many addicts “need resources, not prison beds.”