By Dave Adkisson, president and CEO, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce
With yet another legislative session ending in a House-Senate stalemate, prompting yet another special session, it is important to remember that the 2011 General Assembly did pass one very significant bill: the Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act, a.k.a. the prison reform bill.
This new law will save Kentuckians tens of millions of dollars in prison costs – money that would be far better spent on our schools and other important programs. At the same time, the bill will also protect the public and provide treatment for offenders whose drug addiction spurs their criminal behavior.
The process that was used to develop the new law is as noteworthy as what the law does – particularly in these times of political name-calling. A task force (comprised of Democrats and Republicans representing the legislative, executive and judicial branches, including representatives from local government and prosecuting and defense attorneys) based its decisions on data reflecting Kentucky’s actual experiences with prison population growth and corrections spending increases.
This task force, created by the 2010 General Assembly, worked for months with the assistance of the Pew Center on the States to look closely at what factors were driving the increases and to propose changes to the system that would get spending under control. Throughout the process, people with varying points of view – victims’ advocates, public defenders, business leaders, law enforcement agencies and others – were given an opportunity to comment on what was being considered.
The resulting legislation, passed overwhelmingly by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear, is projected to result in total savings of $422 million over the next 10 years. Part of these savings will be reinvested in strengthening probation and parole, treatment for drug abuse and efforts to reduce the number of parolees who return to prison for technical infractions. Counties, whose jails house many state prisoners, would be assisted with a $61 million fund. That means a net savings to the state of at least $147 million over 10 years.
The Kentucky Chamber is particularly encouraged by this development because of our long-standing concern about parts of the state budget that are growing faster than we can afford. Our 2009 Leaky Bucket report identified corrections, Medicaid and public employee health benefits as areas of unsustainable spending increases that, unless brought under control, threaten Kentucky’s economic future.
Because public education is the business community’s top priority for state investments, we were alarmed that money was being siphoned off from education and channeled into the growing cost of corrections and other “leaks” in the state’s budget bucket. We knew we needed to address this issue.
This legislation is a huge step in the right direction – and we agree with other observers that continued attention must be paid to this important area. In our view, the Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act is the success story of the 2011 legislative session. We hope that members of the General Assembly will embrace the process that created this landmark legislation as they tackle other difficult issues that face our Commonwealth.