Op-Ed

Without prosecutors in the lead, true criminal justice reform won’t happen

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We all want to be safe. Because we care about better outcomes, we want the laws that seek safe communities to be evidenced-based, not rhetoric-based.

In an age where myth too often overwhelms facts, let’s look at the facts.

Victims, including victims of violent crime, want smarter spending on safety. The Alliance for Safety and Justice’s 2016 National Survey of Victims’ Views revealed that by a margin of 2 to 1 victims want the focus to be on prevention and rehabilitation over locking more people up longer. By a margin of 15 to 1, victims prefer greater investments in schools and education over greater investments in incarceration.

Kentucky is digging the hole deeper, doing the opposite of what victims prefer. We are spending more on unproductive incarceration, robbing us of funds to invest in better outcomes. We neglected the pension system to our peril. Our neglect of smart policies in our justice system is leading us down the same kind of dark hole.

I began as a public defender in 1976. Over the decades, public defenders and criminal defense attorneys have communicated criminal-justice facts and have proposed common-sense reforms, including reducing pretrial incarceration, changing low-level misdemeanors to violations, reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors, increasing reentry support, and repairing Kentucky’s once-model penal code.

Defenders have stepped up to the plate with our nationally recognized, award-winning alternative sentencing program that uses the evidenced-based practice of Motivational Interviewing to engage clients in a community-based treatment plan instead of prison. This program yearly saves over $10 million in county and state incarceration costs.

But it is clear to me, as I end my nine years as Kentucky’s chief defender, that prosecutors — who have vast influence on what happens in the criminal justice system and who can prevent reform — must lead future evidenced-based reform or it won’t happen at all or in a sustainable way.

Kentucky deserves prosecutor leadership for reform that is inspired by what members of our communities and victims really want and what the evidence directs. Victims want this as the national survey demonstrates, “seven in 10 victims prefer that prosecutors focus on solving neighborhood problems and stopping repeat crimes through rehabilitation, even if it means fewer convictions and prison sentences.”

“For too long when we talk about safety it’s been a conversation about building prisons and increasing incarceration. What we know is that hasn’t worked to help the communities most impacted by crime and violence,” said Lenore Anderson, president of the Alliance. “What we’re hearing from crime survivors is that we need to invest in new safety priorities that stop the cycle of crime, such as programs for at-risk youth, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and rehabilitation.”

Kentucky’s crime continues to decline while incarceration needlessly increases. From 1985 to 2015, the crime rate in Kentucky fell 19 percent and the violent crime rate declined 28 percent. This is confirmed by a 45,602 decrease in the number of criminal cases in the system between 2007 and 2016.

Yet this year, for the first time in our history, Kentucky topped 24,000 in our prisons and is 1,573 over its projected level.

This level of incarceration comes at great expense. The 2017 Kentucky corrections budget was $572.6 million but fell $42.7 million short. In the last six fiscal years, corrections required $139.8 million more than budgeted.

Imagine our long-term dividends had these funds been used for prevention and rehabilitation.

Provisions that would have made real progress towards smarter criminal justice practices were taken out of the legislation that passed this year, while another bill passed that increased penalties for drug trafficking that will increase incarceration and cost many millions.

In light of laws enacted this year, we know that the Kentucky corrections expenditures will be more than the $612 million in fiscal year 2017, and even more in 2018.

The more we spend on locking people up longer, the less we have for prevention and rehabilitation, which is how victims want us to spend our money.

If Kentucky stays the course without the leadership of prosecutors toward a more effective expenditure of funds, get your checkbook out fellow Kentuckians.

Ed Monahan is the Kentucky Public Advocate.

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