Three-pronged attack on prison costs

By John D. Minton Jr.

The core function of the state courts is the adjudication of legal disputes. And of all the legal disputes we adjudicate, our courts spend more time by far presiding over criminal cases.

Each year our judges faithfully apply the law of this state to the facts of each criminal case and sentence thousands of convicted offenders to prison for the protection of the public.

The annual cost of prison is a shocking $19,000 per prisoner and growing. And this growing investment in incarceration is not paying a return in increased public safety.

Despite a small decline in 2009, Kentucky had one of the nation's fastest growing prison populations in the last decade. During that time, our prison population grew 45 percent as compared to 13 percent growth for state prison systems in the United States overall. Our current prison population stands at 20,200 inmates.

To pay for this increase, total state spending on corrections rose to $513 million in FY 2009. This is up 54 percent since FY 2000 and a total of 338 percent in the last two decades.

Even with this significant increase in spending, Kentucky has not seen an associated increase in public safety. The state's recidivism rate — the number of offenders who are released from prison only to return within three years — has not improved at all.

In fact, recidivism has increased slightly from 37 percent for offenders released in 1997 to 43 percent for those released in 2006.

While the state's crime rate has actually declined 12.4 percent since 1999, that decline trails the decrease in the national crime rate of 20.6 percent. Property crime in the state has actually begun to rise again.

Can Kentucky achieve better outcomes at a lower cost to taxpayers?

I believe we can and that's why I am pleased to join Gov. Steve Beshear, Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo in forming the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act, which will be assisted by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.

Over the next several months, this task force will analyze the drivers of our inmate population growth and recommend sentencing and corrections solutions that are proven to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and contain corrections spending.

The task force will take a data-driven approach, employing methodology that has produced good results in states as diverse as Kansas, Vermont, Texas and South Carolina.

This strategy has been successful in part because it is a bipartisan, inclusive process that engages all stakeholders and all three branches of government to construct policy options that achieve a better return on our public safety investment.

Although in its preliminary stages, our analysis has already uncovered some interesting facts about what is driving Kentucky's prison population.

For example, an increasing percentage of offenders on parole are being sent back to prison for technical violations of the conditions of parole such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test.

Such parole violations accounted for 10.2 percent of total admissions in FY 1998, yet rose to 19.5 percent of all admissions in FY 2010. Meanwhile, admissions by parole violators who have committed a new felony offense accounted for just 2.2 percent of total admissions in FY 2010.

I am pleased to be included in this new effort. I respect the role of the legislative branch to make the ultimate policy choices about crimes and punishment and the role of the executive branch to implement those choices. The judicial branch will play a critical role in this conversation as well by bringing to the table our considerable experience working daily in Kentucky's criminal justice system.

Aligning the three branches of government to consider new approaches is a good idea that can result in policies which protect public safety, preserve the rule of law and save taxpayer dollars.