There is a push, both in Kentucky and nationally, to reduce the number of people behind bars, and the cost of housing prisoners is among the top reasons cited for the need for bail or criminal justice reform.
Floyd County’s top prosecutors, however, believe that money should not be at the root of these decisions.
The overpopulation of prisoners is no secret in Kentucky, where the number of prisoners has increased by more than 40 percent since 2004, and reports of overcrowded jails and prisons repeatedly make headlines. The Floyd County Detention Center has been overcrowded for years.
How to deal with those issues, however, is a subject up for debate.
Beshear announces changes are coming
Gov. Andy Beshear talked about the state’s incarceration population during a Jan. 17 press conference and again on Jan. 28, when he revealed his budget proposal to legislators. He reported Kentucky has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and the world.
“Criminal justice reform is not just the right thing to do, but we must do it based on our current reality and on our budget,” said Beshear on Jan. 17. “The reality is that, this session we can have robust, non-partisan dialogue and then move forward in a real and meaningful way to address our issues.”
Beshear also cited “crumbling infrastructure” as part of the problem, talking about prison facilities in the state. He called for the consolidation of state prisons, “meaningful addiction treatment and recovery services,” a reduction in incarceration population and other measures. He talked about the need for bail reform, early release reform and, among other things, reforming probation and parole.
During his budget address, Beshear called the corrections system the state’s biggest challenge.
“The biggest challenge is corrections,” he said. “While the rest of state government is facing cuts, year after year, budget after budget, corrections has been exploding, taking dollars that could go toward keeping our people healthy or educating our children. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and one of the highest in the world. Our people are not more violent. We don’t have more criminals. We just put more of our own people in jails and prisons. Since 2004, the state’s incarcerated population has increased more than 40 percent. That is not sustainable. And at the same time in the last four years, the state has lost 1,269 beds, mostly at medium security facilities due to crumbling infrastructure.”
His budget proposal called for an additional $115 million over the next two years to fund corrections.
“Folks, we must address this problem. We must meet this challenge from a moral standpoint. Criminal justice and prison reform is the right thing to do. My faith teaches me that,” Beshear said. “But we must also make change based on our current reality and on our budget. We cannot afford to continue this incarceration rate if we want to continue to invest in our children.”
Prosecutors fear the worst
Beshear has stressed that he wants to reform the criminal justice system in a way that doesn’t compromise public safety, but that’s just what Floyd County prosecutors fear could happen if, with criminal justice reform, the focus is on the money it takes to house prisoners.
In recent interviews, Floyd County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brent Turner and County Attorney Keith Bartley shared their opinion about this topic.
Turner, answering questions after a Floyd County grand jury indicted 12 people for bail jumping in December, said he’s seen a “huge increase” in the number of bail jumping cases his office is prosecuting because the “state has mandated that more people be released on bond.”
He and Bartley said most people who are charged with a crime should be released, but they both complained about a computer program that helps pretrial release officers assign bail to criminal defendants.
Turner explained that pretrial officers go to the jail and interview people who have been arrested.
“And they go through, like this computer checklist program, where they ask them all kinds of questions, you know — where they live, if they’re employed, if they have family, all this kind of stuff, and that computer spits out a bond recommendation,” Turner said. “And the system that they use is almost universally, at least with the judges and everyone, is just a joke.”
Floyd County judges consider the recommendations from that program, but they don’t always follow it, Turner explained.
“The joke that we have is if it comes back and says someone is a high risk, which happens about once every three years, my joke is, well, they must be like a serial killer or something because we never get that,” Turner said.
Bartley and Turner both believe bond decisions should be left to judges.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened in today’s world, because our divine legislature has so directed, is that these pretrial release officers, who work for the state of Kentucky, determine basically, whether a person gets released or gets a bail or is just released on their own recognizance before a judge even sees them,” Bartley said. “The problem with that is that there is some people that shouldn’t be released. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people that should be. And I don’t have a problem with an overwhelming majority of them. But there are some people that are being turned loose under the rules that are put into place by these state employees that don’t deserve to be released without very strict conditions or bail.”
Bartley said he doesn’t know the specifics of the pretrial program used, but he believes it’s faulty in some cases.
“All I know is they’re releasing people, many of which should not be released,” he said. “Essentially, if you committed murder in Kentucky right now and you had no criminal history, they’d ROR you, meaning release you on your own recognizance.”
Pretrial releases could lead to
Turner and Bartley explained that lighter bail requirements and pretrial releases could lead to more crime.
“The Republicans and Democrats both, in an effort to save money, are willing to put the public at risk, to save a dollar so they don’t have to house somebody over here in the jail. That’s what it comes down to,” Turner said.
He said the people who deal with the problem daily believe that more home incarceration may help.
“But the problem with that is that it costs over $300 a month to do it and a lot of the people don’t have the ability to pay it,” he said. “But the other thing is some places are just going to need to expand their jails. Frankfort doesn’t want to hear that because they don’t want to pay for anything. But we don’t have an incarceration problem. We have a crime problem. And that’s unpopular. And ... no one nationally or on the state level wants to deal with that. They all are in the mode we need to reduce our jail and prison populations and that somehow will make us safer. But that’s not going to work.”
He said when talking about the problem, he uses a hospital as an analogy, explaining that if there was a major disease outbreak that filled hospitals with patients, people would not say, “We’ve got a hospitalization problem … We need to let more people out, push them out of the hospitals or try to get more beds.”
“But the response we have from Frankfort and, nationally now, on crime is the fact that there’s so many people that are being arrested is somehow the fault of the police or the prosecutors or the judges and not the fault of the people that keep committing crimes. That’s what the issue is,” Turner said.
He said Floyd County judges try to keep people out of jail to free up space in the jail and save county funds.
“Our job is to try to keep the public safe from criminals and everything can’t always be about saving a dollar, and, unfortunately, that’s where we’re at,” he said.
Bartley said he believes the same thing.
“There is a national push to get people out of jail and that national push has fed its way into Kentucky. My biggest problem is it appears that governments tend to want to make decisions about who should be held in jail and who shouldn’t based upon money,” Bartley said.
He explained the state’s pretrial release program, reporting that before it was implemented; judges determined bail based on a person’s criminal history, the charges at hand and other factors.
“I know that might have taken up more time. But I think, looking at cases on a case-by-case basis is the best way to get the best result,” Bartley said. “When you try to apply bright-line rules, it just doesn’t work, in my opinion, because if we think we’re going to turn everybody loose on ROR and nobody is going to stay in jail pending their court date; that might be great for drug possession cases or theft cases or something, maybe those people aren’t going to go out and hurt or harm people, but are we going to turn lose murders and rapists? You know, are we just going to let them go because we don’t want to spend the money to house them? That’s crazy.”
Bartley also complained about leniency in the state’s parole system.
“In Kentucky, they try, it is their policy, whether it be written or unwritten, to give people probation at the earliest possible probation date, regardless of the circumstances because they don’t want to spend money to house people,” he said. “I just think that making the decision to turn people loose, in general, because of money is just a bad way of going about that. I think we take out of the equation, the ability of people who are experts in the field to actually look at the facts, look at the criminal history of a person and determine what’s appropriate. You take that out, then I think you’re opening yourself up to huge failure.”
Real impacts of
When asked for an example of a case in which a criminal was released to free up jail beds, Bartley pointed to the case of Delano Hagans, a man who was sentenced to serve 10 years on his second drug trafficking case and who allegedly was videotaped plotting Bartley’s murder. He spent a little more than two years behind bars before he was paroled.
“There’s no question (Hagans) got that early parole because he was in the sweep where the state of Kentucky was making decisions based on money,” Bartley said. “Why should we let — Delano Hagans is dead now, by the way — why should we let a two-time drug trafficker who threatened to kill your local prosecutor loose on parole at all? But I don’t know. They let him loose as quickly as they possibly could. Perfect example. There’s thousands of those out there.”
He emphasized the need to analyze each defendant on a case-by-case basis.
“In the end, a lot of decisions get made, based on money, and I understand that,” he said. “For 24 years now, I’ve had significant numbers of people in the Floyd County jail, and I’ve had county judges for 24 years and jailers for 24 years trying to get me to get people out of jail. Quite frankly, some of them needed out and we managed to get them out, a lot of them. But some of them need to stay. Some people just need to do their time, no matter how much it costs.”
Turner said those who support criminal justice and bail reform believe that “we have all these people locked up on petty technicalities,” and he believes that assertion is “absolutely not true.”
“It’s actually really hard to get any kind of prison time. You have to commit, usually, anything short of murder, you’ve got to commit multiple crimes; you’ve had tons and tons of chances and it’s only when you really have screwed up and don’t take advantage of all of that, that you actually end up with real prison time,” he said.
Talking about the possibility of crime increasing because of bail reform, Turner pointed to a new bail reform law that went into effect in New York on Jan. 1. That law restructured the state’s cash bail system so that judges can no longer set a cash bail for defendants charged with a long list of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, including charges like stalking, arson, second-degree manslaughter and robbery.
After those changes took place, crime rates increased in New York and some repeat offenders who had been released via the new law committed crimes, some of which were violent, leading people — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo — to call for the law to be re-evaluated.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue filed federal charges against resident Gerod Woodberry, an alleged bank robber who was freed on his fourth bank robbing charge by the bail reform law and then allegedly robbed two more banks.
“No sound, rational and fair criminal justice system requires the pre-trial release of criminal defendants who demonstrate such determination to continuously commit serious crimes, Donoghue was quoted as saying when he announced Woodberry’s federal charges.