The ease with which Republican lawmakers overrode Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s vetoes made him look irrelevant. But Bevin’s political impotence was evident earlier in this session when his criminal justice reforms went exactly nowhere.
This legislature failed to even consider administration ideas for curbing the increase in prisoners, though Kentucky is due to run out of prison space in a year. Prison costs are a ticking bomb in a budget that’s strained to the max. And the wasted human potential, including harm to children when parents are locked up, is incalculable.
So, what did this General Assembly do?
It made a bad situation worse. House Bill 169, which imposes harsh mandatory sentences for criminal gang activity, provides no violence prevention, youth or jobs programs, and lacks any rehabilitation component. It would raise prison costs by an estimated $19.5 million. And, as witness after witness testified, its penalties will fall harshest on young black Kentuckians who already are disproportionately imprisoned. The deaf ear that the overwhelmingly white legislature turned to black leaders’ pleas against HB 169 was disturbing.
Bevin should veto the gang bill, which received final passage too late for the legislature to override a veto.
It came after lawmakers last year erased the distinction between drug traffickers and users, and mandated five to 10 years for selling or sharing any quantity of heroin or its synthetic proxies — a driver of the 19 percent increase in prisoners projected for the next decade.
Fewer Kentuckians are committing serious felonies, but lawmakers can’t stop enacting harsh new penalties when rehabilitation, drug treatment and supervised probation would better serve everyone, including taxpayers.
Bevin has gotten mileage in conservative circles with his stand against mass incarceration. Writing for Fox News, being interviewed by a conservative commentator or a star turn at the White House are more fun than listening to Kentucky prosecutors, judges and jailers.
But after the rebuff by lawmakers of his own party, Bevin should consider the advantages of listening for a change. On Friday, as Republicans prepared to override three Bevin vetoes, the governor tweeted that his week-long entreaties to House and Senate leaders had been met with “Crickets.” If that’s not an admission of irrelevancy, what is?
Bevin is spot on about mass incarceration’s hazards, from economic to humanitarian. For Kentucky to join reforming states, some nitty-gritty issues need solving, such as how to ease the addiction to state payments for housing felons in local jails. Reducing some felonies to misdemeanors, as Bevin’s advisory council recommended, would shift costs from the state to local governments. Coming up with an accommodation would require work and wouldn’t raise Bevin’s star outside Kentucky, but it is the kind of puzzle we elect governors to solve.
Bevin brags that Kentucky has made it easier for felons to expunge their records, get occupational licenses and be hired into state jobs (without mentioning that he blocked 180,000 felons from regaining voting rights.) Small steps on a long road.
Advancing criminal justice reform could help Bevin regain political relevance, burnish his resume but, most important, put Kentucky on a more hopeful path.