Franklin County

Report: Inmates need help before release

FRANKFORT — One in three inmates released from Kentucky prisons gets into fresh trouble and returns within two years, a hugely expensive trend caused in part by a failure to prepare felons for the outside world, lawmakers were told Thursday.

The legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee heard a report that it requested last year, examining the "felon re-entry" programs that teach inmates how to find housing and jobs after they are released.

According to the report, re-entry programs vary widely in quality among the state's prisons — lasting anywhere from one to 20 hours — and they don't even exist at the crowded local jails that now house more than one-third of the state's 21,619 prisoners. Some newly released felons don't know how to request and fill out a job application.

Also, additional inmate programs that teach job skills, help with drug and alcohol addiction and provide high school and college educations either are unavailable or come with a waiting list, according to the report.

Given the exploding cost of the state Corrections Department — expected to hit $478 million by 2010 — lawmakers said more should be done to rehabilitate felons and stop them from boomeranging back through the prison gates.

"It's almost like we're saying, 'OK, every prison come up with your own program, and you're on your own,'" said Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, the committee's chairman.

Prison officials told the committee that they generally agreed with the report, prepared by the Legislative Research Commission.

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Kimberly Potter-Blair said her department recently hired a manager to oversee re-entry and home-incarceration programs. Re-entry programs should be available and of similar quality every place state inmates are held, she said.

"As far as re-entry, we are new to this," Potter-Blair said. "We are starting from scratch."

The report also revealed:

■ The Corrections Department has a new computer system, the Kentucky Offender Management System, called KOMS, to track state inmates. But nobody is entering potentially useful information on which inmates take re-entry or self-improvement programs while incarcerated, so nobody knows whether these efforts reduce recidivism.

The department asked the 2008 General Assembly for $6 million last winter to expand the KOMS database, but lawmakers rejected that.

■ A maze of federal and state laws, crafted to punish and keep a wary eye on felons, prohibit many from holding a driver's license; accepting a wide variety of jobs; entering residential drug-treatment programs; getting college-tuition assistance; or living in public housing or within 1,000 feet of a school, day care or playground, depending on the nature of their crimes.

Inmates could learn a marketable skill in prison but discover too late that as felons, they're forever barred from being licensed to ply that trade, said Sen. Dan Seum, R-Fairdale.

While an argument can be made for each individual get-tough law, taken as a whole, they don't leave released felons much breathing room, Seum said.

"We've gotta open the doors for these people someplace," he said. "I'm just really concerned about all of these roadblocks we put up."

■ Very few sex offenders complete the treatment program available in five prisons. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2,600 people were incarcerated for sex crimes, but only 216 completed a sex-offender treatment program.

■ Kentucky is releasing more inmates than ever, and more liberally.

Faced with full state prisons and local jails dangerously overcrowded with state inmates, the General Assembly last winter ordered faster parole reviews and earlier inmate releases based on various credits.

Prosecutors are challenging the early releases in court. But in the meantime, more than 1,400 inmates have been released under the new rules. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Corrections Department released more inmates than it admitted, the first time that has happened in at least a decade.