Prison costs drive hole in state budget


As Gov. Matt Bevin and legislators contemplate our diminishing fiscal health, they should not ignore the ever-growing costs of imprisoning Kentuckians.

In the last several years, the General Assembly has passed significant legislation aimed at reforming our criminal-justice system to keep people who aren’t dangerous out of prison. But there is much more to be done, as the prison and jail population numbers, and their associated costs, indicate.

In the 2014-16 biennium, corrections consumed 11 percent of state spending, almost 50 percent more than human services (7 percent) and only slightly less than the 12 percent for postsecondary education.

The state inmate population, about 3,000 in the 1970s, had risen to 23,215 this June. During that time, corrections spending rose from under $20 million to $524.6 million. Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley, who championed reform as a legislator, predicts that will rise to near $600 million for the next year. The average cost to keep someone in prison is $66.82 a day, $24,389 a year.

Bevin has joined Tilley, whom he appointed, in advocating reform. Still, more can and must be done. Such as:

▪  Put people in jail because they are dangerous not because they are poor. Thousands await trial behind bars because they can’t pay bail. This is the case despite an order by the Kentucky Supreme Court early this year setting mandatory, statewide standards to evaluate pretrial imprisonment based on risk. Failure to follow the order presents serious constitutional issues but it is also irrational and unproductive. Tilley says about 37,000 defendants who represent low to moderate risk serve on average 109 days a year in county jails at a total cost exceeding $100 million.

▪  Raise the amount required to make theft a felony. Few things derail a life like a felony conviction, yet in Kentucky a person can wind up in prison with a felony record for stealing something worth $500, like one cell phone. Most states have a level over $1,000; in Alabama it’s $1,500, and $2,500 in Texas. Despite increases in 35 states in recent years, property crime has dropped.

▪  Budget to fully staff probation and parole offices and reduce turnover by paying a professional wage for those difficult jobs. Over 6,000 people return to prison annually for violating probation or parole but only five percent of those committed a new crime. Most had technical violations: failing a drug test; missing an appointment; not reporting a new address or job. Kentucky has alternative sanctions for technical violations but prison is too often the default.

▪  Stop passing laws that fill prisons based on emotion, not data. Drug traffickers belong in prison but House Bill 333 passed last session created such a broad definition of trafficking in heroin or fentanyl that one user sharing with another could face serious prison time. This state and country have proven that drug abuse will not be solved by locking up users. Putting them in prison diverts money that can be used much more effectively on programs to treat them in their communities.

The key is data. There is an enormous body of information about what makes us safer and what doesn’t. Kentucky can’t afford to warehouse tens of thousands of people who don’t represent a danger to their communities based on wishful thinking. It’s a waste of human resources and tax dollars.

Average cost to incarcerate (current)

Per day: $66.82

Per year: $24,389

Source: Kentucky Dept. of Corrections