Kentucky looks at new reforms to cut jail, prison population

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, August 28, 2018


News release

FRANKFORT — Staying out of jail may be as easy as having a steady job for some former Kentucky inmates.

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Former inmates who stay employed for one year are about 35 percent less likely to return to jail than those who don’t work, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley today told the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government. He praised county jails that offer GED and work certification programs which, he said, are helping Kentucky reduce its inmate population and grow the state economy.

“We release 16,000 people a year from state prison alone – 16,000,” Tilley told the committee. “Imagine if we could count on having those people ready for the workforce.”

Fewer than one-third of the state’s 76 county jails have some kind of program to ease reentry for prisoners, he said. Among the jails that do offer such programs is the 297-bed Marion County Detention Center (MCDC) where programs ranging from GED classes to R.E.A.C.H. (Re-Entering American Communities with Hope) help inmates succeed once they are released.

A high-profile MCDC former inmate who Tilley said praised the jail’s programming is former Northern Kentucky football star Zeke Pike, a one-time Auburn quarterback who has struggled with addiction and arrest in recent years.

“I encountered him at the jail several years after he left Auburn … Long story short, he told me that inmates want to be at this jail because they know they’ll get programming help and get back on their feet. And as far as I know, Zeke’s doing pretty well,” said Tilley.

But with its successes, MCDC Jailer Barry Brady said the jail also has challenges. The cost of incarceration is rising as are operational costs, which Brady said have increased from a little more than $2 million in 2005 to $4.8 million today. Similar stories have been reported by other jailers in a state where the county inmate population is currently between 12,000 and 14,000.

Senate President Pro Tem Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, whose district covers MCDC, suggested that performance-based funding for jails may encourage more counties to “step up” by becoming accredited or offering effective inmate programs.

“Not all jails are created equal. Some jails in counties work hard to offer every program that they can offer. Some jails, the only thing they can do, the way they’re set up, is to warehouse prisoners – ‘three hots and a cot,’” said Higdon. “We’ve talked about performance-based funding in education. It’s time we talked about performance-based funding for jails.”

Some solutions are expected to come from 2017 Senate Bill 120, sponsored by Rep. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton. The legislation, now law, is expected to reduce the inmates in Kentucky jails and prisons through alternative sentencing—including reentry programs—and so-called prison industry enhancement programs.  Tilley said the state is waiting on regulations to move those reforms forward.

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, asked about the education level and skill set of inmates in Kentucky jails. Brady said many inmates do not have their diploma or GED, while Tilley said around 70 percent of state inmates come to prison with their diploma or GED.

“There is a line of thinking, and there is certainly validated evidence, to suggest that a lack of education is a predictor of prison,” said Tilley. While there are highly-educated professionals who suffer from addiction or other events that could land them in prison, he said those individuals often “don’t end up in prison because they’re able to get help and diversion and treatment outside the walls of a prison or jail.”

Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, said another predictor of incarceration is a person’s mental health. Good mental health, he said, comes before a desire for job training and educational attainment.

“So my question about performance-based funding: Does it include the factor of, is mental health counseling and proper medicine being administered…or is in only based on job training opportunities and GED opportunities?” asked Riggs.

Tilley said he agrees mental health should come first, but “there’s … reality and there’s what policy should look like.” Community mental health centers in Kentucky haven’t received a Medicaid reimbursement increase since 1998, he said, and mental health professionals today are scarce.

“To the question of whether we should include that as a factor… We’ve got good people working in community mental health,” said Tilley. “So yes, the answer’s yes. What it looks like is really up to you … We want to build it with you what this would look like.”