"Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity..." - Hunter S. Thompson (pbuh), 1973

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Idea So Crazy, It Just Might Work

The cost of incarceration vs. the cost of everything else must be starting to make an impression on the "Lock 'Em All Up" crowd...

FRANKFORT -- Some bills strut and fret their hour on the stage, full of sound and fury, but in the end signify little. Others come through on cat’s feet, quietly, plain in their presentation but historically transformative in what they plan to do.
This week, a true ‘change’ bill of the latter sort passed the General Assembly, quickly and with little fanfare, a strikingly bipartisan bill that rethinks a fundamental but ever-more-costly function of state government: Corrections.

House Bill 463 takes a long look at the drift toward harsh and punitive sentencing in the so-called War on Drugs, and admits the unproductive drag such sentencing of non-violent offenders has become on the state budget.

Kentucky has about 20,500 prison inmates and spends about $440 million a year on Corrections -- closing in fast on a billion dollars a biennium. As recently as 2008, the Pew Research Center reported Kentucky had the fastest growing prison population in the nation. Incarceration costs nearly $22,000 per inmate, per year -- money many have come to see as pure waste if all it accomplishes is simple punishment of low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

The reform bill changes the way we think. It’s designed to keep such offenders out of prisons and in treatment, under community supervision. The goal is to return no-threat offenders to productive lives as taxpaying, contributing citizens, not wasting away behind bars, becoming hopeless, hardened criminals on the taxpayers’ tab.

The legislation arose from months of work by a blue ribbon task force of prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, police, lawmakers, corrections officials and others. The Pew Center, a national resource in helping states cope with exploding Corrections costs even as recidivism rates worsen, helped the task force in its work.

Kentucky’s penal code has not had a comprehensive review and revision since 1975. In subsequent years, as the state bought into the premises of the nationwide War on Drugs, penalties grew like Topsy in patchwork fashion. Corrections costs flew high, right along with the number of incarcerations -- incarcerations overwhelmingly drug-related and too often imposed on non-violent offenders arguably more in need of treatment and job training than a locked metal door and three squares a day from state kitchens.

Compounding the fiscal problem is that, by its very nature, Corrections is relatively immune to the budget cuts that have stripped most of state government bare in recent years, though eight rounds of cuts over three years. Prison buildings must be maintained, guards must be paid to watch the inmates, the inmates must be fed. Prison costs are resistant to cuts and always referred to in the newspapers as ‘soaring.‘

But with passage of this bill, the dollar signs will finally fly in reverse. It’s estimated the bill will net $147 million in clear savings over the next decade from reduced jail and court costs, even after paying for treatment programs and probation and parole monitoring. Total savings including money plowed back into treatment, could reach $420 million. And that doesn’t include the clear benefits -- financial and otherwise -- of having non-violent offenders working, producing, and paying taxes in the community.

The measure ultimately came within one vote of unanimous General Assembly approval. The final agreed-upon version passed the House with only a single dissenting vote, the Senate with none, and it was sent to the governor for his signature Monday only days after it was brought up for its first discussion.

The Corrections Reform Bill of 2011 promises to be the signature achievement of this year’s session, and has been hailed by veteran legislators and others as one of the landmark legislative accomplishments of recent decades.

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