“People want to know how much it costs, not how unjust it is.”
I heard this statement in a meeting discussing justice reform in Kentucky. As cruel as it sounds, there may be some truth to it. Some Kentuckians believe that people who have committed crimes, no matter the circumstances, should be put away for as long as possible.
What we sometimes fail to realize is that people commit crimes for all kinds of reasons. Kentucky has the 12th-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to the Sentencing Project.
Many of these inmates are convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses related to drugs. Because of minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses, we are incarcerating people who should be in treatment.
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The cost of incarceration is about the same amount as tuition and room and board at the University of Louisville. That’s about $18,000 per inmate each year of incarceration, estimated by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Multiply that by about 23,000 and you begin to see the cost of our penal system.
Alternative programs are showing significant savings. Louisville has a day-reporting program that allows low-level offenders to get treatment and skills training while being monitored.
This saves the city about $50 a day per participant — a significant savings over time. The long-term effects on the inmate’s life and that of his or her family are immeasurable.
Justice reform is a bipartisan concern in Frankfort. Gov. Matt Bevin supports it, as do a majority of legislators. The devil, however, is in the details.
How will our elected officials reform an unjust and expensive penal system in a way that will save the state significant money and at the same time provide justice for victims and perpetrators?
A few bills have already been filed with more to come. Some of these bills are helpful, while others only continue the pattern of piece-meal justice legislation.
Specifically, Senate Bill 14 and House Bills 46 and 52 would all raise the minimum sentencing for drug-related charges. The intent is to strengthen the punishment for persons trafficking in fentanyl and other fentanyl-related substances in order to fight this epidemic.
Though the intent is honorable, these bills would put a greater financial burden on our justice system.
A study by the American Society of Criminology showed that longer sentences did little to deter criminal behavior. What we know for sure is that it will cost the state more money.
Instead of piecemeal legislation, the Kentucky Council of Churches urges our legislators to take a longer view and support the recommendations by the Governor’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council.
This group has been working diligently, listening to reports and testimony, visiting prisons and jails, and studying what is working in other states.
The council of churches advocates for justice reform because it is the moral thing to do. The Bible tells us to do justice and love mercy. We need a state penal code that is just, equitable and merciful.
We also care about the cost, because money saved by reform is money that can be used to provide social services for our most vulnerable citizens.
The Kentucky Council of Churches is holding Prayer in Action Days at the Capitol Annex every Tuesday, 9:30 am through March 14. These events are open to the public. On Feb. 7, we will focus on justice reform.
Learn more at www.kycouncilofchurches.org.
The Rev. Peggy C. Hinds is executive director of Kentucky Council of Churches.