Op-Ed

Let’s fix Ky.’s broken criminal justice system

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In May 2019, Kentucky will run out of prison space; and without substantive changes, the commonwealth may be forced to release prisoners early.

At a time when the nation’s incarceration rate declined for the third consecutive year, Kentucky’s rate continues to surge. The female incarceration rate is more than two times the national average and now stands as the second-highest in America.

Even before the U.S. Department of Justice released these statistics a few weeks ago, Gov. Matt Bevin — along with the House, Senate, the secretary of Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court — had become alarmed enough about the worrisome trend lines that they resolved to tackle the issue. They impaneled the Justice Reinvestment Work Group last spring to recommend data-driven solutions.

After a five-month deep dive, these stakeholders — judges, county attorneys, commonwealth’s attorneys, victims’ advocates, defense attorneys, law enforcement personnel, jailers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and the Cabinet of Justice and Public Safety, among others — found the largest driver of prison growth was substantial increases in admissions for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of people incarcerated for drug possession doubled and admissions for the lowest felony class increased 38 percent. In fact, nine of the top 10 crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in 2016 were for nonviolent offenses..

While our jails and prisons increasingly are filled with individuals convicted of nonviolent, non-sex offenses, policymakers in conservative states — including Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas (started reforming in 2007), South Dakota, Alaska and Utah — are advancing research-based reforms to safely curb growth and, most importantly, improve public safety.

These states sharpened their sentencing and supervision policies to focus prison beds on the most serious and violent offenders and then reinvested the savings into more cost-effective strategies to reduce recidivism. And it worked.

As of 2016, 35 states have reduced both their crime and incarceration rates. These states now offer more substance abuse programs for addicts — a must in the midst of this opioid crisis — and mental health treatment.

They improved their criminal codes, better-trained personnel in the legal rights of victims, strengthened community supervision, and some took the step of modifying their pretrial detention policies so accused offenders that were a potential threat to society weren’t released simply because they had the cash to get out, while many poor defendants of little threat languished because they simply didn’t have the means.

House Bill 396, which incorporates many of those reforms, is our road map to a criminal justice system that protects the public while using prison resources more effectively. There’s still a window to refocus our prison and jails on serious and violent offenders. It is my hope lawmakers seriously consider enacting these proven reforms.

Daniel Cameron, spokesman for the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition, is a Louisville attorney and was a member of the Justice Reinvestment Work Group. Reach him at Dcameron@fbtlaw.com.

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