Kentucky cannot afford to keep locking up so many people. We can’t afford the cost, now almost $600 million a year.
And we can’t afford the waste of human potential, including the harm to children when parents are incarcerated.
Regrettably, overcrowding is forcing the state to employ a private company with a dismal record to house 800 prisoners.
Last week’s announcement signifies the legislature’s failure to enact reforms that can reduce both incarceration and crime. It also signifies the failure of judges and prosecutors to embrace alternatives to imprisonment.
In 2018, lawmakers must redeploy dollars from locking up nonviolent criminals into providing them addiction treatment and programs that lead to a better path.
Fueled in large part by opioid addiction, the state’s prison population has mushroomed by more than 4,000 in the last four years to 24,367. Kentucky houses many low-level felons in severely overcrowded county jails with little to no access to treatment, education or rehabilitation.
Even more people would be behind bars if not for sentencing reforms enacted by the legislature in 2011. It’s been clear for several years that the 2011 reforms did not go far enough.
For one thing, Kentucky’s threshold for felony theft has been stuck at $500, one of the lowest in the country, for a long time. Texas has raised its felony theft threshold to $2,500. Georgia has raised its to $1,500 and South Carolina to $2,000. We’re not suggesting that thieves should go unpunished, just that there are better ways to penalize them and at less cost.
Rather than upgrade the 80-year-old Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, Justice Secretary John Tilley decided to re-up with the rebranded CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, to house 800 inmates at its prison in Lee County, scene of a 2004 riot. Another factor in his decision: the high cost of staffing in Oldham County, which has four state prisons and almost no unemployment. Workers must be brought in from other prisons, resulting in overtime, travel and lodging expenses that will be avoided in Beattyville, where people are desperate for jobs.
The company owns three prisons in Kentucky but the state stopped using private prisons in 2013. In hopes of avoiding recurrences of understaffing and prisoner mistreatment, Tilley is imposing contract conditions and hefty fines for violations.
Our justice system faces so many challenges, the last thing it needs is a profit motive for powerful private interests to lock up more people.
Tilley and others are offering solid recommendations for rehabilitating offenders without building new prisons.
As Kentucky struggles to support education and honor pension obligations, lawmakers must curb the high costs of over-incarceration.