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State Officials Discuss Criminal Justice Reform Amid Incarceration Boom

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As Kentucky’s drug overdose and incarceration rates continue to surge, some are renewing the call for the state to reform its criminal justice system and increase opportunities for drug treatment.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said the number of people in Kentucky’s prison system surpassed 25,000 for the first time this year.

“We’re constantly trying to keep the tourniquet applied because we’ve let it get this bad as a state,” Tilley said at a legislative hearing at Lake Barkley State Resort. “That’s the problem, there’s so much deferred maintenance, so much neglect of facilities throughout the state.”

Earlier this year, Tilley warned that without reforms, the state could run out of prison space by 2019.

In order to deal with the crunch, Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration last year reopened a contract with a troubled private prison company to run a facility in Lee County.

In recent years, the Bevin administration has advocated for reforming the justice system in order to reduce the state’s prison population, creating a task force that recommends changes to state law.

Sweeping recommendations that would get rid of Kentucky’s money bail system and ease the threshold for non-violent felonies like theft and missing child support payments have failed to gain traction.

Damon Preston, Kentucky’s chief public advocate, said that the legislature needs to be more thoughtful about creating new criminal penalties every year.

“The biggest reform we can do is stop the one-way street of sentences going up,” Preston said. “Every term there are a certain number of crimes where there sentences are raised. And it’s extremely rare that their sentences go down.”

Preston said that the legislature had increased or created new penalties for 26 crimes during the previous legislative session while easing penalties for two.

According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a major driver of the state’s inmate population is an increase in low-level felony convictions, especially related to drugs.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Paducah, said he agreed that the system needs to be reformed, but warned against going too far.

“I think we again need to proceed with caution and we must first and foremost put consideration for our victims at the top of the list for what we consider,” Carroll said.

Last year, the legislature voted to create a drug court-type pilot program to supervise people with addictions who have been released from jail.

According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, 1,565 people died of drug overdoses in the state in 2017, up from 1,404 in 2016 and 1,248 in 2015. The agency said the increase was “largely due to fentanyl.”

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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