West Powell went to prison in 1989 for stealing two car radios from a Northern Kentucky junkyard. He was released a year later, age 20, a convicted felon with few legitimate prospects.
“When you’re in prison, they really don’t rehabilitate you,” Powell said Tuesday at the state Capitol. “They just put you on a shelf for however long, and then they turn you loose again. The only thing you learn is how to be a better criminal.”
Powell was at the Capitol to watch Gov. Matt Bevin announce the creation of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which met for the first time Tuesday. Its 23 members include lawmakers from both parties, judges, prosecutors, police, clergy and business leaders.
The council is expected to study the state’s criminal code — enacted in 1974 — and suggest improvements for the 2017 General Assembly to consider this winter. Council members said they plan to focus on every aspect of how the state punishes people and how it treats them once they are released from incarceration.
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Bevin has talked to inmates at some of Kentucky’s prisons since taking office in December to hear their “stories of redemption and restoration and hope,” said Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley, who will help lead the council.
“Our system is badly broken. It is in need of reform. And despite the fact that we have made significant reforms in recent years, we remain in distress, as most states do,” Tilley said. “We are not doing what we should do to cut re-offense rates, to allow folks to recover, to knock down those barriers that exist when they leave the prison. And so those will be the solutions we present in the next six months.”
Tilley cited the state’s persistent felony offender law, which allows for longer prison sentences when people have multiple felony convictions. Prosecutors say the law is a useful tool for keeping career criminals off the streets; critics say the law sometimes is abused to stick non-violent offenders behind bars for years.
“Kentucky has one of the harshest persistent felony offender laws in the country, and I think some proportionality needs to be discussed in regards to that law,” Tilley said. “I think there will be some discussion, but that’s not to say we’ll act on it.”
Past efforts at criminal justice reform have fallen short in Kentucky. Most recently, in 2011, the legislature passed a reform package that was supposed to cut the prison population and save $42 million a year, in part by shifting non-violent drug offenders into addiction treatment and community supervision.
Kentucky had about 22,000 state inmates at that time. This week, it has 23,715 state inmates — about half of them housed in 13 state prisons, with the other half in local jails. The state Department of Corrections’ budget is $530 million this year.
State officials cite a number of obstacles for the 2011 reform effort, including a parole board that proved more conservative than predicted about early releases and local judges and prosecutors who did not favor “alternative sentencing,” such as halfway houses rather than prisons.
Still, if it hadn’t been for the 2011 changes — which relaxed some of the state’s drug laws — it’s possible the state inmate population now could be nearing 30,000, given the previously explosive growth rate, Tilley said.
The state has made other attempts to help felons re-enter society, such as adding drug treatment beds and streamlining the felony expungement process, officials said Tuesday.
The legislature has rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons. But some ex-felons are likely to use the new expungement law to clear their records and legally register to vote, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, who serves on the new council.
“We haven’t been asleep at the wheel to this point, certainly. We just can do it better,” Tilley told reporters.
At their first meeting, council members heard from Jenna Moll, deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, who talked about legislative reforms enacted by several other states.
For example, Utah reclassified more than 150 misdemeanors as “infractions,” punishable only by a small fine, and down-graded felony drug possession to a Class A misdemeanor. Drug-free school zones — which establish tougher penalties in drug sale cases — shrank from 1,000 feet around a school to 100 feet, and they were not recognized at night when schools are empty.
Mississippi provided parole eligibility for non-violent, non-sexual offenders after they served a quarter of their sentence. It also provided parole without a formal board hearing if victims and law enforcement do not request a hearing and if offenders have no major institutional violations in their final six months.
The council’s next meeting is set for July 21.
Powell, who spent a year in prison for stealing car radios, said he would urge the council to help inmates improve their lives so they don’t end up behind bars again. Because the prisons are full, thousands of state inmates serve their time in overcrowded local jails that offer almost no educational or vocational programs or substance-abuse treatment, he said.
“Give people a fighting chance to turn their lives around,” Powell said. “I would say that we have a bunch of people with drug addictions in the black community — and now it’s crossed over into the white community, especially with heroin — and they really need treatment. They need help. They are committing crimes, but if you just throw them in jail and have them sit there, you’re not solving the problem.”