Kentucky’s Shameful Statistics
According to a report from the PEW Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, Kentucky’s prison population increased in 2007 by 12%—nearly double the rate of any other state in the union. This caps a trend of increased incarceration in the Bluegrass State, despite nearly flat levels of crime over the past 30 years, which has promoted prison overcrowding to the forefront of issues facing Kentucky’s lawmakers. Yet, despite the crisis, there is a reluctance on the part of the legislature and the governor to address this problem with the swiftness it demands.
How could Kentucky, a small state with no major urban areas, and a relatively low crime rate, have leapfrogged crime ridden states such as California, New York, and Florida to be the far-and-away incarceration leader? The PEW report places the blame squarely in the lap of the parole board, abetted by Kentucky’s harsh sentencing laws and the popularity of “crime-fighting” politicians.
“In Kentucky,” the report reads, “an indeterminate sentencing structure means the parole board has broad powers to determine when a prisoner is suitable for release—and thus, to a large degree, how big the crowd behind bars will be.”
Once a convict serves an obligatory portion of his sentence, he is at the mercy of the parole board, and it is their arbitrary decision whether to grant or deny parole. Recently, with new board appointees, the rate of granting parole has plummeted, and, as a result, the prison population has skyrocketed, as inmates stay locked up longer, the PEW reports.
Coupled with the effect of Kentucky’s “mandatory minimums” requiring service of 85% of a sentence for numerous offenses—even of first-time offenders—the resulting jump of nearly 2,500 inmates in 2007 alone is not surprising. Yet, without sweeping, retroactive changes to Kentucky’s sentencing structures, coupled with mandates that the parole board meet some minimum percentage of paroles granted each month, Kentucky can anticipate housing, feeding, and providing medical treatment to a further ten-thousand individuals—an increase of 40%—over the next ten years, the PEW projects.
Additionally, as populations increase, and costs spike, more and more inmates are stockpiled in county jails, where no rehabilitation, reform, or treatment programs—often ordered by the courts as a condition of release—are available. These same programs are being cut in the prisons. Parole boards expect reform. But many inmates face the board having been denied entry into programs, or having been held where programs are not available, and, hence receive long setbacks or serve-outs on their sentences. As a consequence, as more and more are kept inside, there are fewer and fewer dollars available for the very programs designed to speed release and alleviate the overcrowding, thus, as years and decades pass before an inmate is seriously considered for release, the population of Kentucky’s prison increases in number and grows slowly older.
Pointing out this latter issue as a specter of things to come, the PEW report studies the growing cost of healthcare on prison systems, and finds that, as the inmate population ages, the state’s healthcare costs can be expected to rise sharply.
“While crime remains overwhelmingly a young man’s game,” the PEW reports, “inmates aged 50 and older rose … 173%” in recent years. What difference does age make? The study shows that the cost of maintaining an older prisoner is two to three times that of younger prisoners. The inescapable lesson to lawmakers is that, due to these long, mandatory prison sentence—to which even first-time, elderly offenders are subjected—Kentucky can look forward to spending increasingly more and more on inmates who are less and less a threat to society.
Further, due to court-upheld mandates that prison healthcare must meet community standards—must be equivalent to that which indigent citizens receive outside prison walls—coupled with the ever improving standard of health care in the community, and upcoming health-care reforms, the cost of treating aging inmates and other special needs prisoners (HIV positive, Hepatitis C, etc.) in Kentucky can be expected to outstrip even the PEW’s dire predictions.
So, why are Kentucky’s lawmakers not addressing this crisis with the alacrity it deserves? Other than appointing a “criminal justice task force” to review the problem, Kentucky’s Governor Beshear’s response is simply to build more prison beds, by making completion of the facility in Elliot County a priority of his administration, according to his press releases. The long, mandatory minimum sentencing scheme which clogs the system by piling up inmates who have no hope of release for decades is not on the Governor’s radar for reform, though he admits, “reforms … could reduce the populations in our jails and minimum security facilities, [but Kentucky needs] more space to house serious and violent offenders,” he says. In other words, he intends to continue holding inmates for long periods of time, denying them opportunities for rehabilitation programs, meaningful education, and a chance to demonstrate reform, as they slowly grow older, and sicker, presenting virtually no threat to the public, yet absorbing more and more taxpayer dollars in a time those dollars are becoming scarcer.
But, why these harsh sentencing mandates to begin with? Statistics show there was never any crime wave in Kentucky to justify the “Truth in Sentencing” revisions to Kentucky’s criminal code that was enacted in the in the late ’80s, and revised again in the late ’90s. Recidivism in Kentucky was never exceptionally high or out of line with states in the rest of the union. The PEW cites questionable political posturing in the past as the cause of these unnecessary reforms.
“The politics of crime fighting have made most lawmakers understandably wary of advocating a diverse punishment strategy. There are politicians who have seen their careers torpedoed by opponents who used a lone vote, or even a comment, to create the dreaded ‘soft-on-crime’ image at election time.”
But, these fears, says the PEW report, are passé: “Polls show a shift in public attitudes toward crime, which has dropped down the list of issues of most concern to voters.” Indeed, it is policy—not crime rates, population growth, or other external factors—which directly affect the rate at which prison populations grow in Kentucky. Lawmakers determine who goes to prison, and how long they stay. It is the legislature, the governor, and the parole board who directly control the “cost of crime” in Kentucky—not the criminals.
It will take courage on the part of our policymakers to admit that Kentucky’s penal code is fatally flawed; that the “runaway crime rates” foisted on voters as the rationale for Kentucky’s draconian sentencing structure was never supported by facts, and that these mistakes must be rolled back. The state can no longer afford to ignore the findings of their own experts regarding the effects of education level, background, prior offenses, and age on recidivism. At the same time, they must stop using the prison system as a warehouse for humans, and give the “Reformatory” the resources and personnel to do its job—reforming inmates, addressing their needs, and releasing them back to their families.
By transitioning lawbreakers more swiftly and efficiently back into society, and giving them the tools, means, and encouragement to be productive members of that society, we make the ultimate reform—changing an individual from being a part of the problem to being the only solution.
But, for this to happen, Lady Justice must peek from under her blindfold and face the alarming facts.
We can afford to close our eyes no longer.