My most recent column is up in print in today's C-J: Reprinted with permission:
A great deal of energy goes into the debate about whose lives matter in criminal justice. But perhaps too much focus has been on the front end — the arrest of the criminal — and not enough on what should be the back end — his rehabilitation. Kentucky’s burgeoning prison population reflects that we do a good job catching, convicting and incarcerating criminals, but a lousy job preparing them to re-enter free society.
Gov. Matt Bevin is doing something about this by forming Criminal Justice Policy and Assessment Council.
Bevin explained the need for the council: “We must continue to hold people accountable for their crimes, but also find ways to cut re-offense rates, improve reentry after incarceration, increase drug treatment and effectively treat mental illness – all while helping victims and improving public safety.”
The composition of this council illustrates Bevin’s pragmatic and innovative style of governance. This is not business as usual in Frankfort.
The council includes professionals from all levels of the criminal justice system: prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, a former FBI special agent and a jailor, among others.
Most encouraging, Bevin included several members of the clergy. Criminal justice reform should include an element of grace and redemption. It should manifest that most American of values – the hope for a better life – and its corollary: we are the land of second chances.
Local churches and faith-based groups like Prodigal Ministries can play an important role in supporting inmates in becoming law-abiding – and tax-paying – members of the community.
Violent criminals should go to prison for punishment and to deter others, but not all crimes are violent. Further, incarceration is expensive; Kentucky spent nearly half a billion dollars on corrections last year. The high number of people who return to prison suggests that this model is not working. Simply put, it’s not a good return on our tax dollars.
Kentucky houses nearly 24,000 inmates. That’s up from 15,000 in 2000. The heroin epidemic will surely increase that number further. Unless the trend is reversed, Kentucky will have to build more prisons that we cannot afford.
Releasing a heroin addict who has not dealt with his addiction often results in that individual getting rearrested. This cycle is expensive for taxpayers and devastating in human terms. Every prisoner, after all, is someone’s family member – maybe their parent.
Far better to treat the mentally ill and addicted, perhaps with community-based treatment, than to simply warehouse them.
Bevin promised in his inaugural address to see what other states are doing well and then copy their successes. To that end, the council can take the concept “tough on crime” and update it to make Kentucky “smart on crime,” by using data-driven solutions from states like Texas.
The prison population in Texas had tripled from 1990 to 2010; the price for the new prisons necessary to hold all these people would have been $2.5 billion.
So Texas instead invested a fraction of that cost into drug courts to divert non-violent drug offenders into community-based treatment. It focused on rehabilitation to help reentry. The results: a 14 percent drop in the state’s prison population and a 29 percent reduction in crime. That is, Texas found a model that saved money, improved safety and gave former inmates with the desire a new trajectory for their lives.
It’s a little counter-intuitive. One would think that fewer people in prison would mean more criminals on the streets. Here’s the missing piece that Kentucky needs to include: Public policies that turn lives around reduce the crime rate by cutting recidivism.
Former inmates who cannot find a job upon their release resort to old familiar patterns that land them back in jail. The cycle cannot be broken without jobs. However, two-thirds of ex-inmates still don’t have a job one year after they’ve served their sentence. That’s where the private and non-profit sector can help.
The American Printing House for the Blind is setting an example for Kentucky employers to hire released inmates. Its pilot program uses ex-convicts who received Braille training in prison to work as book transcribers after they leave prison.
Likewise, the Charles Koch Institute has developed a Prison Entrepreneurship Program that teaches business classes and culminates in a business plan competition. It gives inmates who so desire the skills and support to work for themselves.
Bevin has seized an opportunity to transform Kentucky, one life at a time by focusing on its most important resource: our peopl