FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A key Kentucky lawmaker previewed an effort to make changes to a criminal justice system he said is “out of kilter," reflecting a growing resolve among some Republicans and Democrats to grapple with surging inmate populations.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jason Petrie said Wednesday that the bills will likely deal with the bail system, persistent felony offender laws, felony thresholds for theft crimes and probation, among other issues.
Petrie, a Republican, previewed the potential reforms amid concerns about surging incarceration rates in Kentucky — a trend that is placing increasing strain on the state's budget. He said criminal justice reform is not a partisan matter.
The issues being confronted will result in “automatic pushback," whether from constituents or stakeholder groups, Petrie said as the committee met Wednesday. He cautioned that all the problems in the criminal justice system can't be resolved by one package of bills.
“Changing things is difficult," Petrie said. “I'm not going to ask to tear down the system and rebuild it in one or two or 12 bills. But there are incremental movements we can make that will help offenders, victims and the way we run" things.
Gov. Andy Beshear has pointed to rising prison costs as a growing burden on the state budget, sapping money needed for priorities such as education and health care, The new Democratic governor has urged the Republican-led legislature to take up criminal justice reforms.
In his budget address to lawmakers Tuesday evening, Beshear noted that the state’s inmate population has surged by 40% since 2004 — a rate he called unsustainable. His budget plan includes about $109 million more in General Fund spending on corrections to meet the growing demand.
“"We must address this problem," the governor said. “From a moral standpoint, criminal justice and prison reform is the right thing to do. My faith teaches me that.
“But we must also change based on our current reality and on our budget," he added. “We cannot afford to continue this incarceration rate and continue to educate our children."
Petrie said he has not communicated with the governor about the bills, noting that he and others have worked on the changes since last year.
“I'm glad if anyone gets on board," Petrie said in an interview. “It is not a partisan issue."
In his remarks to the committee, he said incarceration and repeat offending rates “tell you something may be out of kilter" with the system.
Petrie said any changes should balance the need for appropriate punishments, financial compensation for victims and rehabilitation for offenders.
The goal, he said, is to “have a more just system."
“And a byproduct of that, if it's engineered correctly, would be that (incarceration) numbers would come down over time," he said in the interview. “There is no quick fix in these bills."
The bills could come up in committee in the next few weeks, Petrie said.