Bevin should tap Fayette prosecutor who will support his criminal justice reforms

The Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex is in West Liberty.
The Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex is in West Liberty. Kentucky Department of Corrections

The impending retirement of Ray Larson as Lexington’s chief prosecutor gives Gov. Matt Bevin an opportunity to enlist an ally in his effort to shrink Kentucky’s burdensome prison population while growing its workforce.

Bevin, who is responsible for appointing a new Fayette County commonwealth’s attorney, should name someone who is committed to the goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council that he created in June.

First on the council’s mission statement: Address Kentucky’s “unsustainable, growing adult corrections population.”

That doesn’t mean unleash violent criminals or get “soft” on crime. It means get smart on crime.

With the nation’s 12th highest incarceration rate, the need for smart reform couldn’t be more urgent in Kentucky. We can’t afford to lock up all the Kentuckians whose lives have run off the rails because of drug abuse, and we also can’t afford to waste all that human and economic potential, as the business community is painfully realizing.

Lexington, Kentucky’s second-largest city and home to its flagship university, should be in the forefront of reform, helping the council and Justice Secretary John Tilley develop strategies for reducing recidivism, removing barriers to successful re-entry into society, rehabbing drug abusers and keeping people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

The council, which is aiming to have proposals ready for the 2017 General Assembly, also hopes to produce ideas for simplifying and clarifying Kentucky’s byzantine criminal code.

Fayette’s commonwealth attorney will be critical to making realities of whatever reforms emerge.

Larson, who retires at the end of the month, was appointed in 1985, elected to five six-year terms and was in tune with his times, an era when sentences were lengthened, a war on drugs was lost and prison populations boomed.

The cost of imprisoning someone for a year is more than double the cost of a year of college, and the ranks of prisoners in Kentucky have grown from 15,000 in 2000 to 23,000 this year, eating up scarce state resources that could be going to education and economic development.

A broad-based (from the ACLU to Chamber of Commerce) coalition called Kentucky Smart on Crime, pushed for this year’s successful felony expungement law. The coalition plans to keep pushing for research-proven policies that improve public safety while saving taxpayer dollars. Having the Fayette commonwealth’s attorney on board with that effort could make a big difference.