September 30, 2013

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand

FRANKFORT – One of Kentucky’s biggest challenges – and biggest success stories – over the last dozen years has centered on the state’s prison population.

During the century’s first decade, we saw the number of people behind bars grow by 45 percent, a rate about four times the national average. In 2007, we unfortunately led the country in this category.

Around 2010, however, that began to change. Leaders from all three branches of government began meeting with representatives from a broad group that had a stake in improving our criminal justice system. That included prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, victims’ advocates, local officials and business leaders.

The recommendations resulting from these meetings served as the foundation for House Bill 463, which became law in 2011 with only one dissenting vote in the General Assembly.

Last week, local and state officials gathered to note the successes that have come about in the two-plus years since reform was enacted.

In its first year, for example, we saw our prison population drop faster than any other southern state. In the past year, meanwhile, the decline has measured about eight percent, and it is far below what had been projected before HB 463 became law – a gap of more than 3,300 people.

That’s significant, because it costs more than $20,000 a year to house a prisoner, or about half of a starting teacher’s salary.

We’re seeing good news elsewhere as well. Our recidivism rate – the percentage of prisoners committing another crime within several years of release – is at the lowest levels seen in years. We are also seeing a higher percentage of people who have been charged with a crime, but not jailed, make appearances in court when their case is being decided, and major crimes like murder and rape were down during the first year of reform.

A key reason behind these improvements is a greater emphasis on treating drug addiction among our inmates. Since 2007, the number of treatment slots available to this group has grown from 1,430 to nearly 6,000.

We are also helping many qualified prisoners transition back into society as they enter the final months of their sentence. This supervision has saved the state about $16 million by itself.

Our local governments are also seeing benefits in the millions of dollars. According to the president of the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo), this is the first time in at least 15 years that local jail costs are not the top concern of county officials who were polled.

A report last week by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that many other states are taking similar steps when it comes to reforming their criminal justice system, with Kentucky and 26 others having acted since 2007. As a result, the 50-state prison population declined in 2012 for the third straight year. National probation and parole numbers are on the same downward trend.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Attorney General’s office announced plans to enact similar reforms at the federal level, in an effort to replicate what is taking place in states like ours.

During next year’s legislative session, the General Assembly will see if it can continue these gains by modernizing our juvenile justice system. The cost to house a juvenile is much higher than an adult – about $70,000 extra a year – and many are being detained for infractions such as truancy that would not even be an issue if they were 18 or older. An ongoing legislative task force will offer recommendations by January on what reforms the General Assembly should consider.

In just a handful of years, Kentucky has truly traveled the full circuit when it comes to corrections. While reform will always be an ongoing effort, we are proof that smart-on-crime measures can both maximize tax dollars while maintaining if not improving public safety. As a result of our work, we are on track to reach our goal to save or re-invest $400 million in corrections spending by the end of this decade. Given where we were in this area six years ago, that is certainly good news.

If you have any thoughts about this issue or any other affecting the state, please let me know. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Paid for by Rick Rand for State Representative, Regina Rand, Treasurer