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Kentucky Lawmakers To Consider Sweeping Changes To Criminal Justice System


Kentucky lawmakers will consider an extensive criminal justice reform bill next week designed to save the state money by keeping people out of jail.

The bill is the product of Gov. Matt Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which was created last year and includes 23 state officials, lawmakers and policy advocates from around the state.

Although the legislation hasn’t been finalized, a late draft of the omnibus proposal had several major changes to the state’s criminal code, including a provision for “no money bail,” which would allow low-income Kentuckians charged with some crimes to be released from jail before trial even if they can’t afford to pay bail.

Lawmakers discussed the proposal in a hearing in Frankfort on Wednesday.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville and co-chairman of the panel, said there are equal protection issues to consider when judges set bail for those accused of crimes.

“If a homeless man commits murder and a millionaire commits murder, you can’t both set their bonds at a million bucks,” he said. “One of those is able to pay that and get out. The other one’s going to have to sit there because they’re indigent. There’s no way to consistently apply it and make it constitutional across the board.”

The provision wouldn’t apply to violent, sexual, felony DUI or domestic-related crimes. Those considered to be a high risk for not showing up to their court date would also be prohibited from participating.

According to the Administrative Offices of the Courts, in 2016 about 51,000 people accused of crimes were unable to post a money bond. Among that population, 37,000 were considered “low-risk” and stayed an average of 109 days in jail, costing county jails roughly $100 million.

It costs about $39 per day to house someone in a Kentucky county jail.

Courtney Baxter, the commonwealth’s attorney for Henry, Oldham and Trimble Counties, said state prosecutors are concerned that the provision would improperly release those charged with drug crimes.

“We do have our concerns about judicial discretion, and as it relates to the issues of dealing with low-risk offenders and the ability to detain them as it relates to the drug addiction issues,” Baxter said.

Felony Theft, Child Support Limits Relaxed

The bill would raise the amount someone would have to steal to be considered felony theft from $500 to $2,000, and raise the amount to be charged with a felony for missed child support payments from $1,000 to $5,000.

Larue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner said raising felony thresholds would burden counties because county attorneys and judges would have to handle cases previously managed by commonwealth’s attorneys.

“I think there’s just some issues here that we are going to have to delve through before it’s something that counties can sit back and say, this is going to be something that’s going to be good for us,” Turner said.

The bill would also allow companies to locate and employ prisoners inside the prison walls.

Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey and other state officials recently traveled to Kansas, where a similar program is in place. He said it gave one prisoner he met “pride.”

“They were compensated I think roughly $9 per hour, somewhere near there. So part of the money was paid for restitution. Part of the money, this guy said that it allowed him to pay child support so that he wouldn’t be arrested once he got out,” Ramsey said.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters said trial judges might be uncomfortable with the changes but the bill moves the state “in a great direction.”

“I know judges have a little heartburn of the idea of it,” Venters said. “But I think, having been a trial judge, that’s mostly because it’s new and it’s unfamiliar, and we might have to work with our judges to increase the comfort level with this kind of program.”

A press conference announcing the legislation is scheduled for Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. The bill will likely be heard in committee on Friday of next week.

Other key provisions:

-The bill would forbid hiring and licensing boards from disqualifying applicants based on prior criminal convictions;

-create a drug supervision pilot program and release those convicted of certain drug crimes to the supervision of a “reentry team” that includes drug monitoring and treatment;

-and increase the amount of time those convicted of certain crimes would have to serve to become parole-eligible.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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