FRANKFORT, Ky. - “[W]e have seized every opportunity for three decades to make punishments harsher on criminals. We have elevated an untold number of misdemeanors to felonies, have pushed sentences higher through reclassification of crimes and the enactment of a wide assortment of penalty enhancements, and have eliminated parole for a long and ever-expanding list of serious offenses…In fact, we have left very few areas of our criminal law untouched by a philosophy devoted almost exclusively to harsher punishment of offenders.” Professor Robert Lawson, PFO Law Reform, A Crucial First Step Toward Sentencing Sanity in Kentucky, 97 Kentucky Law Journal 1 (2008-2009).
“Conservatives correctly insist that government services be evaluated on whether they produce the best possible results at the lowest possible cost, but too often this lens of accountability has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government. As such, corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets—trailing only Medicaid.” From Statement of Principles, Right on Crime (2012).
Kentucky has an acute need for significant additional resources. The most immediate is that of meeting its pension obligations. According to the Pew Center on the states, “Today, Kentucky faces a $23.6 billion shortfall between what should have been set aside to pay future pension benefits and what has already been set aside. That sum is more than twice the revenue delivered by Kentucky’s entire tax system in 2011.” In addition, our state university system is grossly underfunded. Our judicial system closed courthouse doors several times last year. Medicaid continues to grow. State workers have received virtually no raise for the past 10 years. Simply put, we need additional resources to meet existing needs. None of this is new, but the problems are growing worse by the year.
A source of money not yet considered is in our correctional system. One source of additional revenue seldom mentioned is in our correctional system. Perhaps that is because we assume that public safety requires it. Kentucky spends almost $500 million per year to incarcerate and supervise 22,000+ inmates and over 41,444 (as of 2011) persons on probation and parole. Kentucky spends an additional $244 million (as of the Auditor’s Report in 2005) on jails (for misdemeanants and pretrial detainees). Over 19,000 persons in Kentucky are presently housed in our jails, including over 8000 persons incarcerated for a felony offense. Kentucky houses more felons in county jail than any other state except for Louisiana. Almost 2% of the Kentucky population is in prison, jail, or on probation or parole. One might assume that surely this level of spending is necessary to guarantee public safety, particularly when there are so many other competing needs. That is an erroneous assumption.
We have increased spending by 4 times since 1990 without increasing public safety. The Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers believes that we can find additional resources through the cutting of corrections costs. We do not have to be satisfied with incarcerating 22,000 people at a cost of $1/2 billion per year. Laws we have passed since the Penal Code was written in the early 1970’s have dramatically increased the prison population and its costs. In 1980, Kentucky incarcerated only 3723 inmates and spent only $28.7 million annually to do so. Ten years later, Kentucky incarcerated 8824 and spent $129.1 million. By 2000, Kentucky incarcerated 15,444 and spent $273.9 million. Today we spend almost $500 million, and have spent approximately $1.8 billion during the past four years. This explosion in incarceration and spending on corrections was not in response to a crime wave; rather, it occurred because of decisions we made.
What goes up can come down. What if Kentucky set a goal to return to 2000 levels of incarceration and spending, or even 1990 levels? Could we do so without compromising public safety? Remember that at present our crime rate is no lower today than it was in 1970. What are we accomplishing with this bleeding of the public fisc? What could we do with $250 or $300 million dollars to resolve the pension crisis, or to treat drug addiction, or to fund fully our court system, or to lower tuition at our state universities, or to fund many of the other priorities we have?
The Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers believes that we can pass reasonable legislation that would decrease prison costs while at the same time protecting public safety. While some decrease in the crime rate is as a result of harsher sentencing policies, most of the decrease is not. Harvard University sociologist Bruce Western has stated that increased incarceration accounts for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime rates, while William Spelman, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, believes that the