The state’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (CJPAC) is developing ideas in the areas of drug policy, prevention, jail reform, penal code reform, reentry, recidivism reduction, and probation and parole reforms. At last week’s CJPAC meeting, work groups addressing those issues described some of the reforms they are considering as recommendations to the administration and legislature.
Here are several promising reforms under consideration:
Expanding drug courts. Drug courts target criminal defendants and offenders who have substance abuse problems. They are designed to reduced drug use relapse and recidivism through graduated sanctions and incentives, substance abuse treatment and various rehabilitation services. The National Institute of Justice conducted an evaluation and found that participants in adult drug courts reported less criminal activity and had fewer re-arrests; they also reported less drug use and were less likely to test positive for drug use. Treatment costs are higher for participants in drug courts, but with less recidivism they actually result in a savings of an average of $5,680 to $6,208 per offender overall. While Kentucky does have drug courts, there are no drug courts for juveniles or at the district level. According to Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley, juvenile drug court “met its demise” in Kentucky because of funding problems. Expanding drug courts in the state could have a positive impact on the state’s drug problems and recidivism rates.
Creating a new gross misdemeanor classification. Classifying some non-violent offenses currently classified as a Class D felony, the lowest level felony, instead as a “gross misdemeanor” would mean less time incarcerated for some offenders, which has a positive effect on individuals and families and also saves the state money; in addition, gross misdemeanor offenders would not face the lifelong consequences of a felony conviction.
Raising the felony theft threshold. Currently theft in Kentucky is considered to be a felony if it is for more than $500. However, at least 30 states set the threshold at $1,000 or higher. Like with the creation of a gross misdemeanor classification, such a reform would reduce the number of Kentuckians charged with a felony and therefore the amount of time spent incarcerated, among other consequences associated with a felony conviction.
Making reforms to the bail system. An issue highlighted by Secretary Tilley is money bail, the practice of pre-trial release from jail being contingent on a defendant’s ability to afford a monetary payment, which means those with low incomes remain in jail while those with higher incomes can return home to await trial. Another issue is that many inmates who can’t afford to pay bail remain in jail pre-trial and are not granted bail credit, which would apply $100 per day spent in jail toward bail.
Reforming Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) law. With Kentucky’s current PFO law, if a prosecutor pursues an enhancement of a felony charge for an offender who has previously been convicted of any felony crime, it is mandatory that it be applied. With a PFO 2nd Degree sentence enhancement (which applies to offenders with one previous felony) a Class D felony with a 1 to 5 year sentence becomes a Class C felony with a 5 to 10 year sentence. With PFO 1st degree (which applies to offenders with at least two felonies) a Class D felony charge becomes a Class B with a sentence of 10 to 20 years. As noted by former UK professor Robert Lawson, “The long reach of this law absolutely guarantees inmate population growth and resulting stress for prisons and jails.” Options for reform include letting a jury decide whether or not to apply a PFO enhancement, merging PFO 1st and 2nd degree, and/or not applying PFO to the nonviolent felonies that are not eligible for expungement.
Reducing statutory barriers for occupational requirements. Currently Kentucky law prevents many occupational licenses in Kentucky from being issued to those with a criminal background even if the offense is unrelated to the job.
Increasing focus on graduated sanctions for probation and parole and institute presumptive parole for some offenses. While HB 463 made some improvements in this area, too many on probation and parole end up incarcerated for minor violations of their supervision. In addition, parole rates are low even for low-risk offenders; presumptive parole would mean that those incarcerated for certain offenses would be automatically paroled at a certain point in their sentence.
The CJPAC will continue its conversations about needed reforms to Kentucky’s criminal justice system at their next meeting, October 11 at 10 am in Capital Annex Room 171.