Kentucky is a national anomaly. While most states are safely reducing their levels of incarceration, ours continues to surge. The substance use disorder crisis combined with year after year of the General Assembly passing many sentence enhancements/expanded crimes/new crimes (31 passed by the General Assembly in 2019), has brought us to the precipice of disaster. According to recent figures, Kentucky currently has 21,303 available beds and 24,006 inmates. Governor Beshear has said that the correctional budget is expected to increase by a staggering $100 million in the next two fiscal years. A federal consent decree may be the next step if Kentucky doesn’t get a handle on overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation programming, and other persistent problems. In other states, that’s meant prisons are operated under federal supervision, or a federal judge steps in and orders mass releases.
While past leaders from both parties have been unable to address these issues, there is hope for change. Governor Andy Beshear dedicated a significant portion of his State of the Commonwealth address to urging big changes when it comes to Kentucky’s ninth highest incarceration rate in the nation by saying, “We’ve got to look at both the laws …that are putting people into the system, the laws that are putting people back into the system and also the length of time that people should be in.” Republican Speaker of the House, David Osborne, recently said criminal justice reform is high on the priority list. House Judiciary Chairman Jason Petrie has been hard at work crafting bills to tackle these problems.
Leaders in Frankfort recognize that these issues are bringing together disparate groups with a shared mission of improving outcomes in Kentucky’s justice system. Kentucky Smart on Crime, a broad-based coalition working for common-sense justice reforms that enhance public safety, strengthen communities, and promote cost effective sentencing alternatives, continues to grow. Groups like Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc. and Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence have become partner organizations because they recognize the disparate impact the criminal justice system has on marginalized populations including survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Victimization and trauma, whether experienced as a child or as an adult, place people at risk of future incarceration.
Volunteers of America Mid-States, Inc. is doing innovative work in urban and rural areas around drug and alcohol recovery. Longstanding members like American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, Kentucky Council of Churches, Catholic Conference of Kentucky (my organization), Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Council of Churches and Kentucky Youth Advocates all bring different perspectives with a shared goal.
While there are many legislative initiatives worthy of support this session, Kentucky Smart on Crime sees three that, if passed, would be significant, attainable steps in changing our trajectory as a state with a runaway jail population and an out of control recidivism rate.
- SB87, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chair Whitney Westerfield would return discretion to local prosecutors and local judges in local communities so that they can make the decision about what cases to transfer to adult court for prosecution.
- HB161, sponsored by Rep. C. Ed Massey would realign the felony theft threshold closer to other states. The felony threshold in Kentucky has not increased in over a decade and does not reflect the severity of the offense. Texas has a threshold for classifying a theft as a felony that is five times larger than Kentucky. Six of seven border states have higher levels than Kentucky.
- HB322, sponsored by Rep. Savannah Maddox, calls upon government to increase transparency so that the public and our systems of justice can be more fully informed when there is a seizure by government agents of private property.
- HB327, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Bratcher, streamlines Kentucky expungement law by creating a process whereby charges that result in an acquittal or dismissal are automatically expunged.
- HB284, sponsored by Rep. Derek Lewis, aligns incentives for probation to match those of parole.
Beyond these items, pretrial detention looms large. The Department of Public Advocacy has asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to intervene and set clear rules to protect presumption of innocence and the constitutional right to reasonable bail, an issue that has led to record overcrowding in Kentucky’s county jails.
Let’s hope leaders in Frankfort can back up their words with real action to make our system more just, our streets safer, and our communities more prosperous.
Jason Hall is Executive Director of Catholic Conference of Kentucky, a partner organization of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.