July 17, 2012 — Fifth of a series
The Kentucky Department of Corrections projects that HB 463 will reduce the state’s prison population by more than 3,000 inmates over the next 10 years.
That reduction is expected to generate $422 million in savings, according to the Pew Center on the States, a non-partisan research and policy institute that helped write HB 463.
“We are reversing the trend of rapid growth in Kentucky’s inmate population and its accompanying high price tag,” wrote Lisa Lamb of Kentucky Department of Corrections in a recent brief on the controversial legislation.
None would disagree that the primary thrust of the law is to curtail spending on corrections, which in FY 2010 was $440 million, but some argue that what’s really occurring is a cost shift that counties are forced to bear.
“That’s the biggest thing I’m upset about,” said Chief Circuit Judge Beth Lewis Maze.
“What absolutely needs to happen is a change in the way counties are paid to house DOC inmates. The state needs to back up and reimburse the county for every day an inmate serves in a county jail,” Maze said.
The judge said reoffending inmates sit in jail awaiting trial for four to six months, but the state does not reimburse until the day they are sentenced.
It is a vast law, with elements already being implemented, and others set to roll out over time. Three elements especially—pre-trial risk evaluation, monitored controlled release and mandatory reentry supervision, are the focus of local attention, and local officials say these provisions are resulting in more offenders being out of jail while awaiting sentencing. So what do the number say?
Data from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) obtained by The Morehead News charts the law’s performance in several areas including number of cases in the courts, pre-trial release, appearance rates, and average daily caseloads. The figures are representative of a pre and post HB 463 evaluation.
In the first year of HB 463 implementation, the court appearance rate for accused individuals released on pre-trial conditions increased one percentage point from 89 to 90 percent statewide and decreased one percentage point from 90 to 89 percent in Rowan County.
The number of cases in Rowan district and circuit courts went from 1,981 to 1,819, an eight percent decrease.
The AOC reports that Rowan County’s public safety rate, defined as the percentage of defendants who have not been charged with a new crime while on pre-trial release, showed a one percent increase.
Maze is among those who question whether those numbers accurately reflect recidivism rates in Rowan and surrounding counties because the law has made some fundamental changes in the criteria for how a person can be arrested, charged and sentenced.
For example, under the new law, officers must now cite persons for certain offenses, instead of arresting them as before. This could have the superficial effect of a lower number of cases that come before the district and circuit courts.
Yet Tilley says there have not been fundamental changes in how offenses are classified.
“We did not reclassify one felony to a misdemeanor,” Tilley said.
“We did distinguish low-level peddling to support a habit, because we didn’t have anything to distinguish one pill from 1,000 pills,” Tilley said.
There has been a four percent increase in the number of defendants who are screened for mental health and substance abuse issues, according to AOC data, which may indicate that a secondary goal of the bill—to help offenders get treatment— is being implemented.
More defendants, seven percentage points more, are being released on non-financial conditions since the law went into effect. Maze said she feels personally responsible when a defendant is released at the pre-trial stage and then commits another offense.
“I do feel responsible,” she said, “but it’s the legislature’s job to make the laws and it’s my duty to adhere to those laws,” Maze said.
Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from the statistics is that it’s too soon to draw conclusions, because observations from Rowan officials and data from the state are at odds. More than that, there’s just no way to tell so early on if the positive data changes are a result of HB 463, the economy or other variables.
Going forward, Tilley said there will be adjustments to the law, and he welcomes stakeholders to attend interim judiciary committee meetings where HB 463 will be discussed.
Rowan Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Cline said he’d like to see stakeholder meetings held in the communities, including his own.
“I believe the best way to proceed is for the legislature to get input on this law and how it’s being implemented from those on the front lines,” Cline said.
Noelle Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 784-4116.