Politics & Government

Kentucky locks up more women than most states. Will lawmakers change that?

Amanda Hall was a promising high school student in Martin County who found herself addicted to opioids after pain from a car wreck led her to a hydrocodone prescription. By age 18, she was getting arrested for public intoxication. A few years after that, in 2010, Hall graduated to non-violent drug-related felonies and went to prison.

She had plenty of company. Kentucky incarcerates women at a rate that is nearly twice the national average, according to advocacy group Kentucky Smart on Crime. Although far more men are locked up overall, the number of Kentucky women in prisons or jails over the last five years jumped by 27 percent to 3,156 as of last week, the state Department of Corrections reports.

Many of these women, like Hall, were drug abusers who had little opportunity for serious addiction treatment in their communities. Even in prison, Hall said in an interview Monday, she faced a 13-month waiting list for addiction treatment. It wasn’t until she was paroled that she finally got the help she needed at The Healing Place, a recovery center in Louisville, 210 miles from her home.

“I now know that I suffer from a disease,” Hall said. “And this is not a disease that you can hide away, punish or shame out of existence. Luckily, I was sent to a recovery center as part of the terms of my parole. If this had not happened, I know my story would have turned out different. I would have returned home and used again.”

When the 2018 General Assembly convenes in January, criminal-justice reform groups that lobby for measures to reduce the state’s mushrooming inmate population will make a specific push for women like Hall.

In a conference call on Monday, several of these groups — serving together on Gov. Matt Bevin’s advisory Justice Reinvestment Work Group — said it’s particularly disruptive for society when women are incarcerated. Roughly one in four women entering prison are either pregnant or have children ages 1 or younger. They often are the last threads tying their families together.

Also, many female inmates initially were the victims of crimes themselves, including physical and sexual abuse, said Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.

“We know that there is a very strong correlation between trauma and self-medication often through controlled substances,” Recktenwald said. “So I really feel strongly that these women need support and services, not a prison cell. They need help getting back on their feet so they can care for their children, many of whom they’ve lost, and I hope they can reclaim them. They need to rejoin the workforce. They need to become stable members of the community.”

The Justice Reinvention Work Group hasn’t yet voted on any formal recommendations for the 2018 session, but women participating in Monday’s conference call made several personal recommendations for ideas they would like to see lawmakers consider, including:

▪  More state spending on addiction treatment and diversion programs, such as drug courts, that could keep non-violent offenders out of jail or prison if they’re willing to get clean and not commit new offenses. Especially in rural areas, drug addicts around Kentucky say they can still face daunting waiting lists when they look for treatment options.

▪  Creation of a new “Class E” felony for less serious offenses that would carry less of a penalty than the Class D felony’s one to five years in prison.

▪  Creation of a new misdemeanor drug possession charge that would automatically divert you to addiction treatment rather than incarceration.

▪  An increase in the $500 threshold of the felony theft statute. “In layman’s terms, that’s an iPhone,” said Ashli Watts, senior vice president of public affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Raising the automatic felony trigger to $1,000 or $1,500 would make more sense given the inflation in prices since the legislature passed that law many years ago, Watts said.

Despite several past attempts at criminal-justice reform, Kentucky’s prison population has continued to grow, enough so that the Bevin administration announced last week that it’s reopening a shuttered private prison in Lee County to relieve overcrowding. As of last week, the state’s prisons held 12,058 people and local jails held an additional 9,976, many of them state felons serving out their time in jail.

State taxpayers can expect to spend nearly $600 million on corrections next year, Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said in September as he announced the creation of the Justice Reinvention Work Group.

“Our prisons are full and taxpayers have no interest in spending millions more on new facilities for low-level, non-violent offenders,” Tilley said at that time. “Instead, our state must come together to work within our means, and that requires a more disciplined approach to the penal code that holds both criminals and government accountable.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics