Kentucky governor makes case for criminal-justice reforms

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — I nmate populations and deteriorating prisons are sapping the state of money needed for priorities like education and health care, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said.

Stepping up his push for criminal justice reform as the “fiscally responsible thing to do," Beshear said Friday that the state needs to reduce incarceration rates, which in turn would create opportunities to consolidate prisons.

“Criminal-justice reform isn't just the right thing to do, and I believe it is, it's the moral thing to do," he told reporters at the state Capitol. “It is absolutely necessary to do for this budget and most especially for every budget" after that.

Beshear, who previously served as the state's attorney general, stressed that he wants to revamp the criminal-justice system in a way that doesn't compromise public safety.

The Democratic governor said he wants “robust, nonpartisan" discussions with lawmakers to tackle the issue. Beshear said he's encouraged by talks so far. The legislature is led by Republicans.

Beshear's call for criminal-justice reforms comes against the background of a bleak budget outlook for a state facing many pressing demands, including burgeoning public pension obligations. Beshear, who was elected last year, will present his first budget plan to the legislature on Jan. 28.

In making his case for reforms, he laid out the ballooning costs to support a corrections system housing nearly 24,000 inmates. It was a followup to his State of the Commonwealth speech this week, when Beshear noted that Kentucky has one of the country's highest incarceration rates. The state's inmate population has surged by 40% since 2004.

“Our people aren't more violent, we don't have more criminals," he said in the Tuesday night speech. “We just put more people in our prisons and jails."

On Friday, the governor doubled down on the need to rein in corrections costs. Estimated cost increases to maintain corrections operations through fiscal 2022 exceed $115 million.

That amount would more than pay for universal all-day kindergarten in Kentucky, which will be a “missed opportunity" unless changes are made, he said.

“Year in and year out, the (corrections) costs are going up and they're going up at a level that is taking dollars away from ... critical needs like our children's education and health care," he said.

The governor reiterated this week that he will propose an across-the-board $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers as part of his budget plan for the coming two years.

Reducing the incarceration rate by 1,000 inmates would save the state $12 million, he said Friday.

To reduce inmate populations, the state needs to consider changes to a parole and probation system that returns too many people to lockups, Beshear said.

Persistent felony offender laws resulting in long sentences also need to be reviewed, as does a bail system that clogs overcrowded jails with people who can't afford bail, the governor said.

“We've got to look at both the laws ... that are putting people into the system, the laws that are putting people back into the system and also the length of time that people should be in," he said.

Beshear acknowledged that the state probably won't start reaping the benefit of corrections savings for at least a couple of years.

While prison populations have surged, the state has lost 1,269 medium-security beds since 2016 due to deteriorating facilities, he said.

The bulk of the lost beds were at the Kentucky State Reformatory in Oldham County. Making repairs to that prison would be expensive and “is not a great solution because we can't staff the facility that we would be repairing." The state has had trouble filling jobs at Oldham County prisons because of the county's low unemployment and the availability of higher-paying jobs.

Beshear also said his administration is exploring the possible purchase of two private prisons in eastern Kentucky. He said it's his goal to eventually have no private prisons in the state.

“What I would like to do is to get to a sustainable model where we own facilities that we use," the governor said. “Because when we choose to incarcerate our people, we are responsible for them."