By Tom Handy and Guthrie True
It is uncommon, especially in these days of polarizing political rhetoric, to find two people with significantly different points of view working toward the same goal. Yet that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in as members of a state task force that is looking for solutions to Kentucky's big and growing challenges in corrections spending.
One of us is a veteran prosecutor and former commonwealth's attorney, the other a longtime criminal defense attorney and former public defender. In a courtroom, we would find ourselves on opposite sides of the room.
However as members of the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act, we are finding common ground on the need to increase public safety by getting a better return on the dollars Kentucky invests in corrections.
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The task force was created by the legislature earlier this year with the support of the Gov. Steve Beshear and Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. — another noteworthy display of bipartisan cooperation by the three branches of government. Its work is being done in partnership with the respected, non-partisan Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. Pew is working in more than a dozen states (rising corrections costs being a nationwide problem) to analyze data to identify what is driving prison growth and work with state officials to develop research-based, fiscally sound policy options to protect public safety and strengthen offender accountability while containing costs.
Pew provides valuable research to help ensure that decisions are based on facts, not on anecdotal evidence.
For example, the data shows Kentucky has had one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation over the past decade. Even with a decline during the past three years, our inmate population is 45 percent larger than it was at the beginning of the decade — and that compares with 13 percent growth for the nation's state prison system as a whole.
Even though it would be logical to conclude that this increase has come about as a result of a higher crime rate, that is not the case. Our serious crime rate has been well below that of the nation and other southern states since the 1960s, and the current crime rate is about what it was in 1974.
As a result of this prison growth, state spending on corrections has more than tripled in the last 20 years If spending more money meant the public would be better protected from inmates who eventually leave prison — and, of course, the vast majority of them do — it would be more than worth the cost. But that isn't the reality of our situation. In fact, despite increased spending, the percentage of offenders who returned to prison within three years of release has increased over the past decade, from 37 percent in 1997 to 43 percent in 2006.
What is contributing to the growing number of inmates?
More people are being arrested, even as the crime rate has remained flat, with the increase being driven by a 70 percent spike in drug offense arrests. In addition, Kentucky uses prison — as opposed to alternative sentences like probation — at a much higher rate than most other states. And parolees who do not have a new felony conviction but who violate the conditions of their release are being returned to prison at a higher rate.
As the task force considers possible strategies to protect public safety and control corrections spending, the need for change is clear. We simply cannot afford to continue doing things the way we've always done them. If we fail to act now, projections show that Kentucky will have to spend at least $161 million more on corrections by 2020.
And so you find a prosecutor and defense attorney coming together — with legislators, state and local officials and the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court — in an effort to chart a course that will make a positive difference. The task force plans to issue its recommendations to the state legislature in January and the focus will be clear: getting Kentuckians a better return on their public safety dollars through policy options that protect public safety and hold offenders accountable, while controlling corrections costs.
Tom Handy, who practices law in London, is a former commonwealth's attorney. Attorney Guthrie True of Frankfort is a former public defender.