Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

July 14, 2010

Ky. seeks ways to curb cost of prisons

ASHLAND — Lawmakers may be serious about addressing the rising costs and populations of the state’s prison and jail system.

A Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substance Act on Wednesday laid out an ambitious schedule and plan to provide the General Assembly recommendations by next January on how to improve public safety while reducing corrections costs. The committee, co-chaired by the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, spent Wednesday afternoon hearing from several national corrections consultants about how to reduce prison populations and costs while ensuring public safety.

That’s not to say there might not be some hitches — selling such plans to lawmakers skittish about public perceptions they are soft on crime and to counties which might fear a corresponding blow to funds the state spends to house state felons in local jails could create some problems.

The Task Force is working with PEW Public Safety Performance Project to study successes in other states based on evidence and research. Richard Jerome, PEW project manager, said part of the process will be to meet with all stakeholders — prosecutors, county governments and law enforcement as well as legislative leaders — to explain their proposals will increase public safety while cutting costs. They also plan a poll on the issues and a communications plan to market the recommendations.

Jensen said the group has three goals: public safety, to make offenders accountable and to reduce costs. The best ways to do that, he said, are to address parole, parole violators — many of which return to prison for technical rather than criminal offenses — alternative sentencing and perhaps reducing the length of some sentences.

Dr. James Austin, of the Washington, D.C., consulting firm, said Kentucky has one of the nation’s lowest crime rates, virtually the same as it was in 1974 when Kentucky housed only about 3,000 felons and had a $30 million corrections budget. The violent crime rate is lower and well below the national average, he said. But now Kentucky houses just less than 21,000 and its corrections budget is approaching $450 million.

“You’re safer than most states,” Austin said. “And the majority of admissions are parole violators.” And most of those are technical violations, rather than new criminal offenses.

Yearly admissions have risen from 7,189 in 1997 to 11,252 in the fiscal year, which ended June 30, and many of those are for parole violations, most for technical violations, things like missing a meeting with a parole officer. Those can be addressed in ways other than sending the offender back to prison at much lower costs with no risk to the public.

Kentucky has actually cut back on its prison population the past three years by increasing its parole rate. But LaRue County Judge-Executive Tommy Turner pointed out that trend is unlikely to continue.

“You’re probably not going to get much higher than that,” Turner said, “and in fact, it may come back a little” because the backlog has been cleared and fewer of those remaining may be eligible or appropriate for parole. But Austin said the recent increased parole rate shouldn’t alarm the public.

“About 60 percent of released prisoners don’t come back,” Austin said, quoting national recidivism rates. “A lot of people think it’s the opposite.” Kentucky’s recidivism rate is actually lower than the national rate.

The other area that affects prison populations and costs is the length of sentences. According to University of Kentucky law professor Dr. Robert Lawson, who has studied the issue and written extensively about it, substance abuse and ever-lengthened sentences as lawmakers passed legislation to enhance sentences for repeat offenders are the major contributing factors to Kentucky’s prison population growth over the past 35 years.

Sen. Jerry Rhoads, D-Madisonville, and others, including Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, urged lawmakers to reduce the enhancements for non-violent crimes going into the 2010 session but legislative leaders resisted taking up the idea in an election year. But Rhoads said Wednesday he wants to introduce such legislation in the next session.

Turner said after the meeting he believes Jensen, Tilley and Jerome are sensitive to the fears of counties about changes designed simply to reduce the state’s prison costs – if the savings occur by removing prisoners from local jails along with the payments from the state which many county jails rely on to operate. Even with that, Turner said, county jails have a combined operating deficit of about $140 million that must be subsidized by county general funds.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.


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