A-M editor wins award for jail bond story

Published 12:45 pm Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ben Kleppinger didn’t realize one of his recent stories would become one of the most important he’s ever written. However, the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers did.

Friday, Kleppinger traveled to Louisville to receive the 2018 Media Award from KACDL, presented “to a reporter or editor who has informed Kentucky citizens about the critical constitutional roles of criminal defense lawyers, public defenders or criminal defense organizations in ensuring the individual liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights.”

He won for his June 23 story titled, “Are defendants in Boyle and Mercer counties kept locked up for being poor?” which has been part of ongoing coverage by Kleppinger on the overcrowding issues at the Boyle County Detention Center. It began with a narrative on a woman’s arrest in Mercer County, who found herself homeless after spending 59 days in the Boyle jail because she could not afford her bond.

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But the article went on to tell a much more alarming story, comparing stats on defendants offered non-financial bonds — about 39 percent statewide in 2017 — with those offered non-financial bonds in Boyle County, at 4 percent. The story included reactions from the Department of Public Advocacy and the Department of Pretrial Services, as well as a county attorney.

A magistrate on the Boyle County Fiscal Court recently held up the story during a meeting when the jail study report came up, citing it as something extremely serious that needed to be approached, and the root of many problems locally.

“The Awards Committee unanimously agreed (the article) is richly deserving of this recognition for focusing attention on the inequities and discrimination in our bail system,” said David Ward, KACDL’s president, when presenting Kleppinger with the award Friday in Louisville.

Photo courtesy of KACDL

Donna Brown, executive director of the organization, said Tuesday that a media award is not given every year. “We have a selection of eight or nine awards we give out, it’s never consistent. It depends on who we feel is worthy.”

“I am one of the people who nominated him for the award,” said Scott West. He’s deputy public advocate of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, and the incoming president of KACDL, and said he’s read several of Kleppinger’s articles about the jail overcrowding. West said the Media Award is not given every year because “they don’t want to give an award just for the sake of giving something out. It’s a selective award; this hits right at the heart of what it means to give due process in this country.”

“I think it shows The Advocate-Messenger is paying attention to what’s happening in the community,” Kleppinger said. He said it shows the problems happening locally are happening around the state — that research indicates more people are held in jail than is necessary to ensure public safety.

“I think there are a lot of stories out there other papers could pick up on in their own communities,” Kleppinger said.

West said he doesn’t feel there’s any more timely topic in criminal law throughout the country than the issue of being too poor to afford bail.

“(Sen.) Rand Paul and (former California Attorney General) Kamala Harris crossed the aisles in order to sponsor legislation to give grant money to states who passed legislation dropping money bails all together,” he said. West said it’s not a liberal/conservative issue, and there are a lot of people who believe there should be a line drawn when it comes to wealth being a deciding factor on whether or not a person can get out of jail.

West said citizens have a constitutional right to bail. “Ben Kleppinger tapped into one of the biggest, most important stories across this country — not just this state.”