FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - A coalition of organizations has joined together to advocate criminal justice reform, especially for women.
Kentucky Smart on Crime has a wide representation from all parts of the political spectrum, ranging from the ACLU to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, who are working together on recommendations for the 2018 General Assembly.
Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, says they all worked together for the reforms enacted by the General Assembly this year in Senate Bill 120, but more needs to be done.
“Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population nationally and the conversation has turned to unfair treatment of women, disproportionate impact on women,” she said.
Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, has spent 30 years in the field. “Many, if not most, incarcerated women I have met have been victims of crimes themselves and they’ve often suffered serious physical and psychological trauma.”
She said there is a strong correlation between trauma and medication, especially controlled substances. “I really feel strongly that these women need support and services, not a jail cell.”
Ashli Watts with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce said they got involved after publishing “The Leaky Bucket,” which shows what a drain the criminal justice is on Kentucky.
“It shows that Kentucky has the fourth-lowest workforce participation rate in the country,” said Watts. “The biggest factor is the high-incarceration rate. Kentucky’s prison population continues to grow at a rapid rate, increasing 32 percent in just over five years. For women, it’s a 54 percent rise.”
Watts said the Chamber is concerned that too many low level, non-violent criminals are being locked up. “This comes at a growing cost to taxpayers as the state now spends close to $600 million on corrections.”
One recommendation backed by the Chamber, according to Watts, is a new gross misdemeanor or Class E felony, for the first drug possession offense.
“We came to that conclusion by looking at many other states that have dropped that felony charge to a misdemeanor. Instead of locking these people up, giving them the appropriate treatment they need, so they can re-integrate back into the workforce.”
She said the Chamber also backs raising the threshold for a felony theft charge from its current $500.
“That’s the cost on an iPhone. Do you really want to ruin someone’s life with a felony charge when they made a mistake at a young age?”
She says they are looking at $1,000 or $1,500 for felony theft.
One other aspect the group is looking at is pre-trial reform. They say some people with a relatively minor charge remains in jail for hundreds of days awaiting trial, while another person accused of a more serious crime gets out because they can afford bail.
Specific recommendations have not yet been approved by the coalition.