We’ve reached a critical point in Kentucky — one where our prisons and jails are full, overdose deaths continue to rise and far too many children have parents who are imprisoned.
We can no longer afford to cling to the outdated idea that prison is the only way to effectively hold people accountable for their crimes. Instead, we need to take a smarter, more measured approach to criminal justice.
Punishment is an appropriate and necessary part of the justice system, but if it is the only part, what have we really accomplished?
We must also find ways to cut re-offense rates, improve reentry after incarceration, increase drug treatment and effectively treat mental illness — all while helping victims and improving public safety.
From the very beginning, America has been a land of second chances. That’s why we are announcing the formation of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. These lawmakers, advocates and policy leaders have volunteered to work together for the next six months to recommend reforms for the 2017 General Assembly. This 23-member panel from across the commonwealth will review existing research and data-driven evidence to build a smarter, stronger and better system of justice.
We believe in the importance of supporting basic human dignity. When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits.
On a recent visit with inmates at the Roederer Correctional Complex in LaGrange, men spoke about their struggles to return to a crime-free life after serving time in prison. Many recognize it was their own bad choices that landed them behind bars. They know those choices will follow them long after they have completed their sentences.
Many of those men want the chance to make better choices in the future — to raise their families, overcome addiction and excel in the workplace. Sometimes the road back is blocked by barriers that make leading a law-abiding life difficult. That’s why we need a continued emphasis on reentry to society. This will help to cut re-offense rates and also help people reclaim their lives.
Kentucky has already received national attention for taking important steps toward criminal justice reform. We have recently modernized our drug laws, strengthened probation and parole, and increased drug treatment in our prisons and communities. We also led the country with our approach to addressing the abuse of prescription and synthetic drugs.
The legislature took another major step forward this year by passing a bill that will provide expungements to some nonviolent offenders convicted of certain low-level felonies. This will give them an opportunity to clear their records and make it easier for them to get employment. This is the kind of smart-on-crime legislation that pays dividends for all of our citizens.
Even with our recent progress, more must be done. Kentucky still spent nearly half a billion dollars on corrections last year. Research shows community-based programs are often more effective than prison. By enrolling and supervising low-level offenders in these programs, we can reduce crime and reduce spending.
Our penal code has become a patchwork of disproportionate laws, resulting in a costly expansion of government with diminishing returns in public safety. The penal code must be revised with an eye toward clarity and simplification, returning to provisions that are rational and consistent.
Across this nation, policymakers are taking a bipartisan approach to criminal-justice reform, with more than 30 states passing legislation proven to trim wasteful spending, lower recidivism, cut crime rates and improve public safety.
This is a critical time for Kentucky. One of the inmates we visited noted that there is a certain, hard-to-stop momentum that exists in both positive and negative choices.
Let us continue the positive momentum that comes from making the best choices for Kentucky’s criminal justice system.