The bad news is that, despite significant criminal justice reforms enacted in recent years, the number of people in Kentucky prisons and jails has barely dropped.
The good news is that without the reforms it’s likely that dreadful number — over 23,000, up from about 15,000 in 2000 — would be even higher.
Neither Gov. Matt Bevin nor John Tilley, the Democrat he chose as Justice and Public Safety Secretary, is satisfied with that kind of good news.
In late June they announced a 23-person council charged with studying the entire criminal justice system in Kentucky and preparing a legislative program grounded in research to overhaul it for the next General Assembly.
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Several legislators are in the group, including the chairs of the House and Senate judiciary committees, as well as judges, prosecutors and public advocates, the State Police Commissioner and secretary of the labor cabinet and someone from the state Chamber of Commerce.
They have their work cut out for them.
In Kentucky, and throughout the country, prison populations exploded in the last few decades as lawmakers mandated longer sentences for more and more crimes, including many nonviolent offenses. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and Kentucky had the 12th-highest incarceration rate among states in a 2015 ranking.
The entire criminal justice system has “become a patchwork of dysfunctionality,” Tilley said. It creates rather than rehabilitates criminals.
Tilley knows. He’s a former prosecutor and chaired the judicial committee in the House of Representatives where he led the effort to pass significant criminal justice reforms.
Despite the challenge, there is widespread support for reform because people at every point on the political spectrum see that what we’re doing isn’t working and is very, very costly.
Fiscal conservatives know the almost half-billion annual cost of operating Kentucky prisons is a burden on taxpayers. Liberals know it’s money that could otherwise be invested in education, infrastructure and health care.
Business owners bemoan the fact that the labor force has shrunk because thousands are imprisoned during their prime working years. Social scientists know that minorities make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, at a huge cost to their families and communities.
Kentucky is joining a wave of efforts to achieve criminal justice reforms in states and at the federal level.
Being in good company will not make this easier.
This group must go beyond rewriting the criminal code to address a host of other needs, including: smart, well-staffed diversion programs to keep non-violent offenders out of prison; better and more mental health and drug treatment; training opportunities in prison for jobs on the outside and support as offenders make the transition back into society; options short of permanent re-imprisonment for punishing those who have minor parole violations; better training and pay for workers all along the line, including juvenile detention workers, probation and parole officers and corrections officers. The list goes on and on.
Hammering out a comprehensive set of proposals before the next legislative session is, Tilley said, “an incredibly ambitious and aggressive schedule.”
We wish them well in this important work.