Gov. Matt Bevin’s Justice Reinvestment Work Group announced last month that, without reform, the state’s prison population is expected to grow by 19 percent, adding more than $600 million to the corrections budget over the next 10 years.
Given this heavy price tag, and a recidivism rate of a little more than 41 percent, the time is now to make changes to the state’s criminal-justice system that will safely reduce growth in the prison population and improve public safety.
Over the last few years, Kentucky has undertaken thorough evaluations of both its juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and has taken critical steps toward a better justice system. However, the commonwealth cannot rest on its laurels.
Bevin has acknowledged that there remains “plenty of room for improvement,” aptly noting the “rising prison population, severely depleted workforce participation rates, and the highest percentage in the nation of children with at least one incarcerated parent.” These reasons prompted him to convene the work group to study Kentucky’s growing prison population and to develop data-driven recommendations to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, reduce corrections populations, and safely reintegrate offenders back into productive roles in society.
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The work group found that Kentucky is spending significant resources on low-level, nonviolent offenders and incarceration remains the primary sanction for this group. Kentucky incurred a 32 percent increase in prison admissions in just five years, overwhelmingly driven by increases in Class D felony admissions, Kentucky’s lowest felony class. In fact, admissions for one Class D offense, drug possession, increased a whopping 102 percent.
Also telling, 65 percent of new felony admissions in 2016 are serving sentences for nonviolent drug or property crimes, nearly half of which have no prior felony convictions. Recent figures show that four of every 10 offenders released from prison will return to custody within two years.
Moreover, Kentucky had the fifth-highest imprisonment rate for women in 2015, and will likely continue to climb the ranks. Recent trends show female prison admissions have grown 54 percent in the last five years. Perhaps more staggering, the number of women incarcerated for drug possession has grown 140 percent over the last five years.
Overall, the data reveal that the commonwealth’s over-reliance on incarceration has failed to generate any societal benefits on behalf of the Kentuckians it was created to serve.
On Dec. 18, the work group issued 22 recommendations that, if enacted, will reduce the projected growth in the prison population by 79 percent in the next 10 years, saving nearly $340 million in corrections costs.
Among the recommendations are adjustments to pretrial, sentencing and supervision practices. These include broadening eligibility for the Administrative Release Program to allow defendants accused of nonviolent, non-sex Class D felonies to be released pending trial, as well as restricting the use of monetary bail to certain high-risk defendants.
To address the dramatic doubling in simple drug possession cases, the work group recommends that the first and second offense for drug possession be reclassified from a Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor.
This change is consistent with neighboring states Tennessee and West Virginia. In order to reduce the number of parolees and probationers returning to prison, and to standardize responses to violations of their supervision, the work group recommends expanding the use of graduated sanctions. Graduated sanctions, which may include enhanced monitoring or referral to a treatment program, have proven more effective than revocation and imprisonment in reducing violations when applied in a swift, certain and proportional fashion.
The work group’s 22 recommendations should be viewed as an opportunity for Kentucky to recalibrate its focus away from punitive incapacitation for nonviolent offenders, and instead focus on effective sanctions that rehabilitate offenders, restore communities and families, and promote public safety.
It’s time to reinvest in treatment and programming that provide the greatest returns instead of continuing to pour money into a broken and ineffective system of incarceration.
Julie Warren is the state director for Tennessee and Kentucky at Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice group.