Monday, April 18, 2011

Rural-newspaper correspondent details Ky. corrections reform that still worries local jails

In the latest example of bipartisan cooperation on corrections issues at the state level, fostered by the Pew Center on the States, Kentucky lawmakers agreed last month to overhaul the state's sentencing system and save an estimated $420 million over the next decade. Ronnie Ellis, right, statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., detailed the process for readers of The Crime Report in a story published today.

The state's prison population grew 80 percent from 1997 to 2009 and the corrections budget grew from $30 million in 1980 to $470 million in 2010 even as lawmakers cut $1.8 billion from the overall budget. "At every opportunity, they stiffened sentences and added offenses to the state’s penal code," Ellis writes. They nearly bankrupted the state." As part of the reform, lawmakers "overhauled the state’s drug laws, as well as its sentencing, probation and parole system" which is expected to lower prison populations and expand drug treatment.

Rural counties had skin in the game. "Jails were bleeding county budgets dry, but counties feared the task force would recommend changing low-level felonies to misdemeanors, thus shifting inmates and additional costs to them," Ellis writes. A bipartisan task force representing all three branches of government held public meetings and conducted research about prison reforms that had worked in other states. "It was abundantly clear that they were going to do something," Chris Cohron, a prosecutor and past president of the Commonwealth Attorneys Association, said. "If we didn’t participate in the process we’d be stuck with whatever they came up with."

The bill received rare bipartisan support in the legislature. Republican Senate President David Williams, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, supported the package, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Jensen said he would resign his the post if he couldn't convince colleagues to pass the bill. "House Democrats concluded they could comfortably support the bill without having the Republican Senate exploit their votes for political advantage," Ellis writes. The relationship between the task-force chairmen, Jensen and Democratic Rep. John Tilley, was also crucial. "They were from two different parties, from two separate parts of the state, but their perseverance caused all of us to lay down our differences for the greater good," Chief Justice John Minton said. (Read more)

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