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November 12, 2008

Kentucky governments fighting in court over incarceration costs

This local article from Kentucky, headlined "Counties sue state over state inmate costs," provides a good example of how our prison economy and tough economic times can lead to some unusual court battles.  Here are some details:

The Kentucky County Judge/Executives Association and 110 fiscal courts filed the suit Friday in Franklin Circuit Court.  The suit names the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Justice Cabinet, the Finance Administration and the General Assembly as defendants.  It seeks to force the state to pay for the time prisoners are housed in jails before they are sentenced.  Presently, the state picks up the tab for state felons only from the time of sentencing.

“It’s been discussed for years and years,” said Laurel County Judge/Executive Lawrence Kuhl. “It’s not a thing we really wanted to do, it's a thing we felt we had to do.”

Kentucky law requires judges to give prisoners credit against their total sentences for the time they served while awaiting trial and adjudication.  But while those charged with – and convicted of – felony crimes are state prisoners, the county bears all the costs of housing them before conviction....

Many counties are subsidizing their jail budgets by 30 to 40 percent.  Last year, Laurel County diverted $1.5 million from its general fund to the county jail – and cut every other department’s budget, including the Sheriff’s Department.

Some related posts on prison economy realities:

November 12, 2008 at 08:12 AM | Permalink


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This is just the most recent legal skirmishing in Kentucky over who will bear the exploding costs of the criminal justice and penal systems. There is a second, previously filed lawsuit also pending in Franklin Circuit Court, which was filed by State Attorney General Jack Conway, over this blog's previously reported eearly release of hundreds of state prisoners, after the Legislature in April 2008 passed a law giving violated probationers and parolees credit for their "street time", before they were violated and returned to prison. This measure effectively reduced the amount of time those inmmates would have to serve on their violations before being released. It was projected that it would save the state $12.5 million dollars in 2008. By Septeember 1,100 inmates had been released under the program, lowering the net state prisoner count to 22,150 +/-, from 23,000, with the state realising millions in cost savings. But Ky. Attorney General Jack Conway saw an opportunity for political grand- standing, to pave his way to the Governor's mansion. He filed a lawsuit in Franlin Circuit Court seeking to halt the retroactive application of the new law to inamtes who had already been violated and lost their street time under the old law, before it was changed. Apparantly, the April 2008 legislation is silent about whether the Legislature intended it to be applied retroactively. Conway also sought a TRO, requiring that all prisoners released by such retoractive application be returned to state prison, pending the outcome of the litigation. Thankfully, the Franklin Circuit Judge denied the requested TRO, but the suit remains pending on the merits. With Ky. facing a revenue shortfall of more than $250 million and Governor Steven Beshear likely to call for a special legisslative sesssion to address the financial problems, prison and criminal justice spending are two of the largest items in the entire state budget. Notably, Attorney General Conway did not consult the Governor before filing his lawsuit against the Ky. Department of Corrections. Governor Beshear belatedly issued a press release, stating that he was lookig forward to having this issue clarified and resolved promptly by the Court -- very diplomatic under the circumstances.
On another note, Kentucky is in the early stages of pioneering another new kind of specialized courts, patterned after the successful "Drug Courts" program. The new Courts will be "Child Support Courts". The effort is being spear-headed by Ky. Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble (who initiated the Drug Court program when she was a Fayette Circuit Court Judge), and current Fayette Circuit Court Judge Lucinda Mssterton. The only jurisdiction that presently has such child Support Courts is Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio. The goal of the Child Support Court program will be to encourage delinquent parents to get their G.E.D.s and more education, find better (more remunerative) jobs and stay away from drugs. Historically, Ky. has been very aggressive about prosecuting people for felony non-support of children, after going 90 days or more without paying anything towards support obligations. As many as 1,000 persons are now serving Ky. sentences for felony non-support, but the Judges have realized that this is a "lose, lose, lose" deal. It costs about $20,000 per year to incarcerate a Ky. inmate, but most delinquent parents owe far less than $20,000 in back support. They fall further behind (and the children receive nothing) while they are incarcerated (typically for 6 months or a year), and upon release the parents have an even harder time finding work because then they carry the stigma of being convicted felons! The Judges have come to realize that the "win, win, win" solution is to use the pending felony non-support charges to press the delinquent parents to address issues that are preventing them from getting better jobs and earning more money, rather than locking them up and costing the state $20,000 each per year in incarceration costs. Many other jurisdictions should consider such proactive child support courts, as this is a national problem.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Nov 12, 2008 10:51:40 AM

Two commentary pieces on this litigation can be found on page A-9 of the November 17, 2008 Lexington (Ky.) "Herald-Leader" newspaper; one is by Bob Arnold, CEO and Exec. Director of the Ky. Association of Counties, and the other is by Wayne Rutherford, Judge-Executive of Pike County, Ky., and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Mr. Arnold estimates that Kentucky's counties spend $146 million per year housing state inmates, which indicates how much is at stake in this litigation (per year!), at a time when Kentucky is facing a $300 million deficit (before considering the amount at stake in the lawsuit). Gov. Steve Beshear is expected to call a special session of the Legislature in 2 months, and they will have to consider this issue, as well as the other deficit. 8,000 Kentucky state inmates are serving their sentences in Kentucky's county jails, due to insufficient space in the state's prison system.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Nov 19, 2008 10:39:50 AM

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