Kentucky Passes Legislation to Address Out-of-Control Corrections Costs

On March 3, 2011, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law HB 463—a criminal justice reform bill designed to decrease the state’s prison population, reduce incarceration costs, reduce crime and increase public safety. The Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act was a strong bipartisan effort, passing the Senate unanimously and the House by a vote of 96 to 1. According to the Pew Center for the States, the Act “puts Kentucky at the forefront of states advancing research-driven criminal justice policies designed to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.”

Kentucky’s corrections budget increased from $30 million in 1980 to nearly $470 million in 2010, and its prison population rose along with it—growing nearly 80 percent between 1997 and 2009. That year, Kentucky had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. But despite the dramatic increase in costs, Kentucky’s crime rate remained about the same. These bipartisan reforms look to change that.

The Act’s many reforms are estimated to result in cost-savings of $422 million over 10 years to the Kentucky taxpayer, and will seek to stop the revolving door for lower-risk, non-violent offenders. By doing so, this should open up more prison space for violent and career criminals. And, similar to the recent bipartisan Arkansas reform act, the legislature agreed that half of the savings will be reinvested in efforts to reduce recidivism, including strengthening probation and parole and programs for substance abusing offenders.

As Governor Beshear said in regards to the Act, “it enables [Kentucky] to continue to be tough on crime but at the same time to be smarter about it.”

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Arkansas Enacts “Smart on Crime” Reforms

On March 22, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe enacted significant corrections reform in Arkansas by signing Senate Bill 750—the Public Safety Improvement Act—after it was passed unanimously in the Senate and 79-14 in the House. After initially drawing opposition from prosecutors, the measure won endorsements from the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association as well as associations representing police chiefs, sheriffs, county judges and circuit judges.

In Arkansas, the prison system holds thousands more prisoners than it has the capacity to house, resulting in hundreds of state convicts backed up in county jails awaiting bed space. Without the bill, those prison costs were expected to increase by $1.1 billion over the next decade. However, the Act lessens sentences for some nonviolent offenses and expands alternative-sentencing programs such as drug courts. It also allows the state Department of Community Correction to restore 49 positions for parole and probation officers. These reforms are expected to reduce the increasing prison costs by $875 million.

As State Rep. Darrin Williams correctly noted, “[Arkansas] must be tough on crime, but we must also be smart on crime.” The Act does not touch any violent crimes, and the anticipated prison savings will be reinvested in evidence-based community supervision and programs designed to reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable.

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From The Economist: “They All Come Home”

On the heels of last week’s Pew Report on Recidivism, The Economist has published an article on effective re-entry strategies, including Newark’s Ready, Willing and Able and New York’s Exodus.  “Of the 301 people who completed the Exodus programme in 2010,” the article notes, “only nine went back to prison.”

The most important observation in the article may this one: “In 2008 George Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which hoped to break the cycle of reoffending and, at the same time, increase public safety and rebuild families (more than half of prisoners are parents). But most of the innovation has been at state and local level.

Right On Crime has made this same point.  There are areas of criminal justice reform in which the federal government may be able to play a modest role — and the Second Chance Act could be one of them — but criminal justice is largely a state and local issue, and real reform can only come from the state and local level.  Conservatives are the ones who best understand the virtues of local control and decentralized decision-making, so they are the ones best-situated to push genuine reform forward.

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Reforms Needed to Better Serve At-Risk Youth

The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) recently released a report providing legislative recommendations for the delivery of services to at-risk youth in Texas.  In doing so, the LBB examined the case files of 252 juvenile offenders, making the following findings:

  • More than half of the offenders had a “substance abuse issue”
  • Nearly half had a “mental health issue”
  • More than one-third “have experienced some type of early childhood trauma”
  • A quarter “have been a victim of abuse or neglect”
  • About one-fifth of them have been involved in a Child Protective Services intervention

Altogether, the report found that of the 252 juvenile offenders studied, 74 percent have experienced at least one of the above issues.

In light of these findings, State Rep. James White has pledged to work with members of the House Corrections Committee to reform the way that state agencies serve these at-risk youth. According to White, “a lot of social issues contribute to delinquent behavior, and many youth do not receive needed services until they commit crimes and are referred to the local juvenile probation department.”

Incorporating crime prevention into school-based programs, streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and intervening effectively with those youths who simply misbehave in school to divert them from the juvenile justice system, are among the potential reforms the LBB report suggests ought to be considered.  As Rep. White argues, “if we can identify young people who are showing at-risk indicators before they engage in criminal behavior, we hopefully can offer services… preventing incarceration.”

The report is valuable because it does not recommend throwing more money at the juvenile crime problem, but instead highlights how through better collaboration and coordination among school, social services providers, and the juvenile justice system and an emphasis on early intervention can maximize the results achieved through existing resources.

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All These Years Later, Methadone is Still a Complicated Question

Today, The Atlantic is running a new piece on an old question: is methadone treatment is sensible way to address opiate addiction among prison inmates?

The writer, Jessica Wapner, comes down gingerly in favor of MMT (methadone maintenance treatment), in part because of the cost-savings that it may present: “One comprehensive study found a cost benefit to taxpayers of $4.00 for every dollar spent on MMT. In other words, drug addicts cost the country more than recovering drug addicts. Drug use carries a high risk of hepatitis C and HIV transmission, both costly to treat, and of course takes a toll on the criminal justice system and many other taxpayer-funded services.”

Critics of MMT, however, raise the reasonable point that the treatment may simply be replacing one addiction with another.  Rudy Giuliani, in particular, took a famous stance against methadone in the 1990s, saying ”[i]f it’s necessary for transition, then of course it should be used for transition….If you’re going to keep somebody permanently enslaved to methadone for the rest of their lives, then I have real questions about your common sense.”

Either way, conservatives need to be thinking hard about how to address opiate addiction because its correlation to crime is virtually beyond debate.  A 1997 National Institute of Health study indicated that an astonishing 95% of heroin addicts committed a crime over the course of an eleven-year observation period.

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