Politicians often opine about how the latest election results indicate that “the people want us to get something done.”
In that spirit, I offer an issue that a Democratic House, Republican Senate and lame-duck governor can – and should – come together on: further reforms to Kentucky’s criminal-justice system.
I say “further” because we’ve made some significant progress in this policy area since Gov. Steve Beshear signed House Bill 463 into law in 2011 while commenting that the legislation proves the possibility of being “tough on crime while being smart on crime.”
Yet there’s more for legislators to do – especially if the $400 million in estimated savings from passage of HB 463 is to fully materialize.
The General Assembly clearly expected passage of HB 463 to result in reducing Kentucky’s prison and jail populations – which, historically, have been among the nation’s highest. However, that’s not happening.
Between 1985 and 2012, Kentucky’s overall crime rate fell by 6 percent while violent crimes dropped by 27 percent. Yet the commonwealth’s incarceration rate soared by a whopping – and very costly – 281 percent.
While HB 463 has resulted in a slowing of prison-population growth, Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan believes it has a glaring weakness by allowing prosecutors, judges and parole officials – who, as is a well-known fact, generally aren’t the law’s biggest fans – to continue using their discretionary powers to improperly put and keep low-level offenders behind bars.
Monahan is offering a 10-step program that a politically diverse legislature could largely accept to bring the reforms intended by HB 463 to full fruition, including Step No. 6: “Substantial savings from presuming parole for eligible low-risk offenders.”
A palatable policy change in a politically purple state would result in legislators finding ways to encourage parole board members to discharge more of the nearly 30 percent of low-risk offenders refused conditional release in 2012, and which increased to nearly 36 percent in the just-completed fiscal year.
Just the failure to parole more than 600 low-risk offenders costs taxpayers nearly $28,000 per day – $10.2 million per year – in totally unnecessary costs.
A common sense, taxpayer friendly approach to criminal justice policy that releases low-risk offenders instead of keeping them locked up in prison would not only save taxpayers the $46 per day it costs to house and feed each prisoner, but it can be done safely as parole boards use the highly effective risk-assessment tools available to them.
Lawmakers need to be able to politically walk and chew their gum at the same time on this issue by differentiating between low-level nonviolent and high-risk violent people.
“Locking up more people longer does not reduce crime; locking up high risk violent people does reduce crime,” Monahan said. “Locking up low and moderate risk people longer does not reduce crime and can have the reverse effect, and it is a very costly waste of taxpayers’ money.”
His is a strong argument supported by what’s actually happening both inside and outside the commonwealth.
Texas’ crime rate, for example, is at its lowest level since 1968 even as the incarceration rate has plunged by nearly 12 percent just since 2005.
Interestingly, while Texas has been a national leader on criminal-justice reform policy, not a single politician in the state has suffered defeat at the polls because they were perceived as going soft on crime.
But the best evidence in support of Monahan’s position comes from Kentucky’s own experience. As both adult and juvenile sentencing reforms and alternatives have been introduced here, the Bluegrass State’s crime rate also has dropped.
Shouldn’t that allay fears that implementing further reforms would somehow erode the safety of our commonwealth and its citizens?