Prison population poses problems

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By The Staff

One of the most challenging problems facing state government these days is our sky-rocketing prison population.

This decade alone, the number of inmates has risen nearly 50 percent, while costs have gone up by more than half.  In the last fiscal year, we spent $450 million to house more than 21,000 prisoners, a population roughly the same size as our 17th largest city.

In January, the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee began taking a closer look at the reasons behind this surge.

One of the causes driving the trend is the large number of prisoners who, after being released from state custody, find themselves back behind bars within three years, often for violating their probation or parole.  This recidivism rate, as it is called, is estimated at more than 40 percent.

That could be lowered, the committee said, if the persistent-felony law focused on just violent offenders, which would limit the number of people going back to jail for relatively minor offenses.

Another recommendation is for the state to consider alternative sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crimes.  The report said that if the 9,400 inmates now in state custody for these types of offenses were supervised in their community – under house arrest, for example – the state could save about $120 million.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved legislation designed to help those who were arrested or convicted of crimes tied to substance abuse. This will hopefully end a vicious cycle for addicts while at the same time giving them access to treatment and lowering the costs that would have been needed to keep them in prison.

With the General Assembly poised to take a closer look at prison growth during the 2010 Session, which begins in January, the judiciary is doing what it can to keep our jails from becoming more overcrowded.

Last week, the Kentucky Supreme Court undertook a pilot program in nine counties that lets those arrested on more than 700 crimes, mostly misdemeanors and none of them involving violence, to post bail immediately rather than wait for it to be set by a judge.

According to the court, this one move could save the state as much as $150 million, since there would be no jail-related costs while those charged await trial.

As we look for ways to lower our jail costs, the Program Review study did find that our spending is not out-of-line compared to other states.  Two years ago, the national average was 3.4 percent for state budgets, but it was 2.4 percent for Kentucky.

This is one area where we do not want to reach the national average, so finding ways to keep our prison growth from escalating like it has the last decade will be one of our top priorities in the years ahead.

As always, but especially as we near the start of the legislative session, I hope you will let me know your views about this issue or any other involving state government.  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 the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Representative Rick Rand