Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Safely reducing county and state incarceration costs in 2015

By Representative Brent Yonts, Vice Chair, House Judiciary, Chair House State Government Committee

Government is responsible for keeping us safe. Our city, county and state governments continue to do a very good job of keeping us safe. Our crime rate is lower than the nation’s crime rate and it is declining.

However, the cost of incarceration is high in Kentucky and we are wasting taxpayer money in incarcerating low-risk inmates for longer than is necessary.  Jails remain the highest cost for most every county. The cost of state prisons is nearly a half billion dollars. It is just common sense that the more money government spends on incarceration, the fewer funds there are for important other community and state needs.

While the increase in our incarceration costs has lessened due to the significant criminal reform in 2011, the projected savings have not been fully achieved and Kentucky has spent over $61 million in unbudgeted funds for a prison population that was higher than forecasted.  More money will have to be spent unless the General Assembly does something in 2015. State prison costs continue to increase and remain the most significant share of the Kentucky criminal justice system, taking 36% of the total system funding.

With our worsening fiscal outlook in the coming years, many have commented on the need for the General Assembly to make additional modest adjustments in 2015 that will reduce county and state incarceration costs to address full implementation of the 2011 reform.

There are a variety of ideas that will accomplish the objective of smartly reducing costs in a way that ensures safety. Most of the ideas include modestly reducing the discretion of the parole board, judges, and prosecutors to increase the safe release of persons who have been evaluated by evidence-based, validated risk assessments as having a low risk of reoffending, while still holding these offenders accountable for their criminal behavior through sanctions and supervision.

In addition to the high financial cost of unnecessary incarceration, many people who are jailed face unintended negative consequences.  For instance, there is substantial Kentucky data indicating that keeping low-risk offenders in jail for just a few days is correlated with future criminal activity.  In other words, in some circumstances, keeping a low-risk person in jail when they could be released actually decreases future public safety.

Fortunately for taxpayers, there are a growing number of leaders nationally and in Kentucky calling for smart reduction of correctional costs. For instance, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s report, The Leaky Bucket: 5 Years Later (July 2014) calls on Kentucky legislators to pass more legislation to reduce correction costs.

I have been working with a coalition of county and state groups to identify safe ways to reduce our costs. After listening to these professionals, I filed a series of bills to:  

1.       HB 305 - Reduce low level misdemeanors to violations with pre-payable fines, saving jail, prosecution, and defense expenses;
2.       HB 286 -Permit local jailers to grant limited service credits against an inmate's sentence for good behavior and educational achievement, saving jail costs and encouraging  good behavior, and also mandate alternative sentencing for flagrant non-support instead of imprisonment, saving prison costs and better enabling delinquent parents to work to support their children;
3.       HB 285 - Require parole after a fixed period for nonviolent offenders serving a Class D sentence and release for misdemeanants who have good behavior, saving county and state incarceration costs;
4.       HB 284 -Adopt of a “clear and convincing” standard for pretrial release decisions and findings specific to the defendant, guaranteeing that defendants who are low-risk and entitled to release are not needlessly held in jail at county expense; and
5.       HB 304 - Modify the persistent felony offender statute, saving prison costs by reserving the highest sentences for violent offenders and career criminals.

The KY Chamber’s call for reducing correction costs has been joined by Jim Waters, President of the Bluegrass Institute. The 5 bills that I have filed in 2015 will save real dollars for counties and the state. These bills build on the 2011 bipartisan support with additional improvements to be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.

Our jails have many low and moderate risk detainees being unnecessarily housed at county expense. While our crime rates decline, our correctional costs are unnecessarily increasing.  Increased funding for rising correctional costs dries up funds for important local and state needs. With passage of these bills, we will safely reduce county and state incarceration costs in 2015. That is what taxpayers expect of us.