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Stemming the rising tide of incarceration

OU News

It seems almost every option is on the table as Kentucky lawmakers look for money to help pay down the unfunded liabilities in the state’s public pension system.

One cost-saving idea is to cut the prison population in the commonwealth, says Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. She says the corrections officials could safely reduce the number of low-level, non-violent offenders sitting in state prisons, which in turn would save Kentucky millions of dollars each year.

Harris, an attorney and Elizabethtown native, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her organization’s work to foster criminal justice reform in the commonwealth and across the nation.

The old-school, tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice may make for good political commercials, but in reality Harris says it hasn’t helped improve public safety or reduce recidivism. She contends that it’s counterproductive to give harsh sentences to low-level offenders, many of whom may have mental health issues or substance abuse problems.

Throwing them into a prison population with truly dangerous criminals, while at the same time offering them few opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation, or vocational training, nearly guarantees that they will re-offend and wind up back in prison.

“That’s throwing good money after bad,” Harris says bluntly.

Instead, Harris advocates for helping low-level, non-violent offenders stay out of jail, and if they are incarcerated, for giving them more opportunities for addiction counseling and treatment as well as education and job skills training. It’s more about being smart on crime than being tough on crime, she says.

“If you are in favor of law and order, criminal justice reform is where you should be,” Harris says. “To me, what law and order should mean is lowering crime rates, lowering recidivism rates, and ensuring that we’re promoting public safety in our communities, which is what these reforms have proven to do.”

Rethinking Sentences for Drug Crimes

Harris admits her group does get resistance to the idea of scaling back mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug-related crimes. But she argues that giving 10 years to a first-time, low-level drug offender makes no sense.

“Research shows that the longer sentences are actually harmful to public safety,” Harris says. “What happens is the longer these individuals are isolated from society, the less likely they are to successfully re-enter.”

In the 2017 Kentucky General Assembly, lawmakers approved legislation to make trafficking any amount of heroin and synthetic opioids, including Fentanyl and Carfentanil, a Class C felony. Individuals convicted of dealing those drugs must serve at least half of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

But Harris contends that lawmakers should be careful to distinguish between people who sell just enough drugs to support their own habit and individuals who are truly driving the narcotics trade in the United States.

“What concerns me is that we’re not hitting the manufacturers and the importers – those are the individuals who are actually lacing this heroin with Fentanyl, which is incredibly dangerous,” she says.

Harris is no stranger to the halls of Frankfort. After graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law, she worked as an attorney at the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. She also served as counsel and finance chair for the Republican Party of Kentucky, counsel for the state Senate, and as chief of staff for former Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

She joined the nonprofit U.S. Justice Action Network two years ago to work on criminal justice reform, which Harris says is the last remaining “sacred space” of bipartisanship in American politics.

A Renewed Push for Bail Reform

Harris says Kentucky is viewed nationally as forward-thinking on criminal justice policies. For example, state legislators this year also approved Senate Bill 120, which provides more job training and work opportunities for prison inmates, and gives former felons a better shot at obtaining a professional certification or license. Harris applauds those measures, saying they will help inmates find gainful employment when they get out, and help Kentucky businesses fill much-needed positions.

“Marrying the jobs that are available in market to the job training that a lot of these inmates are receiving, I think, is critical,” she says.

One provision that was removed from SB 120 would have reformed the state’s bail system. Harris says the state spends roughly $127 million a year to house some 37,000 people who are awaiting trial for a low-level, non-violent crime.

“The only reason they’re behind bars is because they can’t make their bail,” says Harris. “Meanwhile, last year in Kentucky just over 800 violent offenders… did make bail, so they’re out.”

In the current system, impoverished people who are merely accused of a crime, but not yet convicted of one, are kept behind bars, which means they’re not earning an income or providing for their families, according to Harris.

“That’s not promoting public safety, that’s just all about whoever has the money gets justice,” she says.

Harris says her group will continue to educate the public and law enforcement officials on the issue with an eye towards passing bail reform in the 2018 legislative session.

Helping Female Inmates

Another area of focus for Harris and her organization is women in prison. In 1970 there were fewer than 8,000 female inmates in the United States. Today that number is more than 100,000. In the last 30 years alone, the female prison population has jumped more than 700 percent.

Statistics indicate that many of those women have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, and sexual trauma or domestic violence. What’s worse, says Harris, is that a quarter of those women are either pregnant or have a young child at home. Some 60 percent of them have a child under 18. Harris says those children are five times more likely to eventually enter the criminal justice system themselves.

And Kentucky has the highest rate of kids with an incarcerated parent of any state in the nation.

Harris argues that female inmates should be treated differently than male prisoners because women have different life experiences and medical needs.

“I think we should providing counseling, treatment, rehabilitative services to these individuals,” Harris says, “because if we don’t treat their core issues, they’re just going to get out, recidivate, and go back to prison.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is the lead sponsor of federal legislation called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which would, among other things, prevent pregnant inmates from being shackled during childbirth.

“As someone who has been through labor, I can’t imagine how you would be able to escape while giving birth to a child,” Harris says.

At the federal level, the U.S. Justice Action Network is also supporting another bill sponsored by Booker that would incentivize states to reduce prison populations, and a measure filed by Republican Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia that would ensure vocational training for prison inmates.

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