Kentucky Jail Breaks Raise Political Hackles
By Fred Lucas, Special to Stateline
Earlier this month, Brian Keith Herron was charged with robbing three banks in Owensboro, Ky. days after being freed from prison. This could have been just another crime story, but it has become a key part of a broader political issue in Kentucky.
Herron, 24 who was previously serving a five year sentence after a conviction for driving a stolen car in 1997 was one of 567 non-violent felons released from prison in December under an executive order from Gov. Paul Patton. The inmate releases are an attempt to offset the state's $500 million revenue shortfall.
Just last week Patton released another 316 prisoners, and more releases are expected. The freed prisoners had up to 141 days left in their sentences.
Patton has said housing fewer nonviolent offenders could reduce costs by $6 million in fiscal year 2003 and by $11 million in fiscal year 2004. But the measure has drawn sharp criticism from both Republicans and Patton's fellow Democrats, who said the move is a threat to public safety and a drain on local governments.
County jails that house state inmates are paid $27.52 per day per inmate. So counties will have to adjust their budgets accordingly. Franklin County Jailer James Kemper said prisoners who were cited in his jail for drug use were still released under the state's mandate.
"It makes it more difficult to manage inmates if they find no sanctions for violating rules," Kemper said.
Kemper said there have already been two released inmates from other counties brought into his jail after they committed new crimes.
Lisa Carnahan, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said the state didn't have the number of inmates who were charged with another crime after being released.
Patton's order applies only to prisoners serving time for certain nonviolent Class D felonies the lowest level of felony under Kentucky law. Prisoners released included those convicted of burglary, theft, arson and drug possession. Offenders excluded in the early release include sex offenders, violent offenders and anyone charged with drunken driving.
Kentucky's correction's department isn't alone in trying to cut costs in the midst of a budget deficit by freeing prisoners. The New York Times reported Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Texas are also releasing convicted felons early, while Iowa has laid off prison guards, and Ohio and Illinois are closing prisons.
"While we realize the financial burden this inmate reduction will cause to the counties, it's simply unavoidable at this time due to the state's financial condition," Patton said.
Under Patton's executive order, if an inmate is convicted and sentenced for a new felony offense, the number of days the offender was released in advance will be added to the time he or she is ordered to serve if convicted.
But it's not the only way of cutting costs, said state Sen. Robert Stivers, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"We spend $1.2 million on prisoners by paying them $1 per day (to do public service jobs)," Stivers said. "Instead of getting paid, they could get time credited as an incentive to do public works."
Stivers, and other Republicans, believe Patton's early release program is a ploy to justify raising state taxes on business, a proposal the governor made last week just days after announcing a new round of releases.
As Kentuckians prepare to elect a new governor in 2003, the two presumed party front runners have already weighed in on the early releases.
Republican U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher vowed, "Under a Fletcher administration, prisoners would not be released just to save a quick buck."
Fletcher pointed out that Illinois tried a similar release program in the early 1980s that immediately saved the state $60 million, but ultimately ended up costing $304 million because released inmates lapsed into criminal behavior.
"I don't believe that a get out of jail free card for convicted criminals is the right way to fix the complicated budget crisis in Kentucky," Fletcher said. "The Patton administration has made a very risky decision while placing our communities around the Commonwealth at risk."
Attorney General Ben Chandler, the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, went to court at the last minute on Friday, Jan. 17, to stop the release of the new round of inmates, but Franklin Circuit Judge William Graham rejected the motion because some inmates were already being set free. However, Graham said he would consider requests to halt the release of future inmates.
"When Gov. Patton proposed this idea, I stated that the amount of time a criminal spends in prison should be based on the crime committed and not on the balance in the state treasury," Chandler said. "Releasing prisoners on these grounds is simply not in the best interest of the public."-
Patton said he is open to suggestions if anyone has a better idea on how to save public dollars.
"Politicians who criticize our actions to our constitutional obligations, but offer no solution, compromise our ability to do what is best for all citizens of Kentucky," he said.