Kentucky's incarceration rates are nothing to be proud of.
Over the past few years, Kentucky has had the distinction of being No. 1 in the rate at which we put folks behind bars according to the Pew Center on the States.
Last week, J. Michael Brown, secretary of the state's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, told me there were 20,540 prison inmates in Kentucky.
Although we had a slight dip in that number in 2009, the prison population grew some 45 percent over the past decade, according to data from the justice system. The rate overall for other states grew only 13 percent.
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In fiscal year 2009, we paid about $19,000 per prisoner to keep them behind bars.
We have the political pressure to appear tough on crime by creating stiffer penal codes, and we have a resulting prison population that is emptying the state's coffers.
Something has to give.
Last month, the Pew Center on the States and members of the three branches of state government joined Gov. Steve Beshear at a press conference announcing the formation of a partnership to look at the penal code, the prison population and public safety.
That project will be led by the Task Force on the Penal Code and Substances Act, which the General Assembly created earlier this year, and any recommendations will be introduced during the 2011 session.
At 6 p.m. Thursday at Chrysalis House, 1589 Hill Rise Drive, members of the judicial system and social and religious groups will participate in an open community forum that will feature Brown; state Supreme Court Justice Will Scott; Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton; Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Bunnell; Kentucky Housing Corporation CEO Richard McQuady and The Rev. Marion C. Dalton of Bethel Harvest Church.
"We are trying to bring attention to the massive incarceration rates we have in Kentucky," said Pastor Byron Cooper, creator and leader of Source of Restoration, a probation program for men that teaches self-respect and biblical principles and requires that they work or attend college.
"It is about what churches and the community can do to work with judges and the police."
For children and for those on parole, there is a need in the community for housing, jobs, education and training, said Cooper, who coordinated the forum. Some convicted felons can't rent homes because of their records, he said.
"A lot of churches have teachers in their congregations," he said. "They can help with programs to help with the reading problems a lot of the men and women have."
Help is needed, justice secretary Brown said.
"If the 20,540 live long enough, all but about 105 will be returned to our communities some day," he said. "So the business of locking them up and forgetting about them is flawed logic because they are coming back to society.
"If we just wait for them to mess up and send them away again, then that is the definition of insanity."
There will always be a need for the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Brown said, because some people need to be locked up. But for the majority of the prison population, there is room and reason to analyze the circumstances that have led to certain criminal activity.
"Education is one," Brown said. "Family structure. Drugs. Intellect. There are a number of factors that lead to an individual being more prone to criminal activity than others."
The task force is looking at current drug laws that need to be reviewed.
"Deferring crime is a lot different than preventing it," Brown said.
Until laws are changed, Cooper said, "We need to see not only that we have a massive problem, but that pastors and businessmen can pull together to help the court system and the families, that we all can really get involved."