Washington could learn from Kentucky’s efforts to reform our state’s criminal justice system.
Just because we have traditionally governed in a less-than-effective way, doesn’t mean we should continue in our old, bad habits. In fact, it’s exactly why we should not. The practice of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” in our criminal justice system is an approach whose shot at effectiveness has run its course.
This misguided mantra propelled the United States’ prison population to unprecedented heights, far outpacing the rest of the world in per capita incarcerations. Nonviolent offenders were locked up with violent ones, often creating a better criminal class instead of better citizens.
Even when a person’s physical prison sentence ends, the stigma of incarceration generally continues in perpetuity, establishing a near-irreversible cycle of crime and punishment. The policies driving this cycle condemn millions of Americans — the incarcerated and their families — to something far short of the American Dream.
It is clear the status quo in criminal justice is not working well for prisoners, families, taxpayers, or our brave men and women in blue. One in three American adults have a criminal record, our communities are ravaged by the drug epidemic and our system strains taxpayers with an $80 billion price tag for prisons and jails alone. The current state of affairs in this country concerning criminal justice is dismal at best.
Now is the time for our nation as a whole to turn toward justice reform policies that are truly smart on crime.
As governor of Kentucky, I’ve had the opportunity to go into prisons and meet our inmates. In those meetings, several things became abundantly clear: A bloated, overreaching criminal justice system can rob people of hope. People robbed of hope are robbed of their basic human dignity; people robbed of their dignity are ultimately robbed of their humanity; and people robbed of their humanity make inhumane decisions involving themselves, their families and their communities.
We need a justice system that works to restore human dignity and respect — dignity for one’s self, dignity for victims, and respect for the rule of law and those who enforce it. To solve our crisis, we must promote policies that offer a true chance for redemption. Otherwise, what is the incentive to turn away from crime?
In the past, second-chance legislation has been introduced in the Kentucky legislature to no avail. However, in our latest session, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass real, groundbreaking expungement legislation. The new law provides an opportunity for certain nonviolent offenders who have served their sentence and completed a crime-free period to wipe their slates clean. This will open the door for better jobs and improved education — and, hopefully, will close the door on a life of crime.
Seeking to build on that success, our administration recently announced the formation of a 23-member Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. It is comprised of a diverse array of voices, including prosecutors and public defenders, members of the faith-based and business communities, state lawmakers and local leaders from across the political spectrum. The task force is conducting a thorough review of Kentucky’s criminal justice system and recommending reforms that will make it more effective and less costly.
One member of the task force, our Labor Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey, acknowledged there are “no quick fixes to complex problems like this one,” but added it is imperative to identify real solutions to address the burgeoning cost of Kentucky’s $500 million correctional system, along with its myriad other shortcomings.
The task force’s recommendations will be presented as legislation before the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The time for talking is over. Now is the time for action. And because so many of my counterparts across the country have seen success with smart justice reforms, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
I recently joined with Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, both of whom are spearheading positive criminal justice reforms in their respective states, in a new film: “Changing Laws, Changing Lives.”
The film highlights our desire to see reform, and the different approaches our states have taken to address it. Just as we hope to spread the word about our vision for a better Kentucky criminal justice system, we seek to learn more about what is working in other states. By working together across state and party lines on this issue, we can develop plans for our states that minimize the cost to taxpayers, maximize public safety and motivate offenders to turn away from crime.
In Kentucky, and in other states across the country, the archaic “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1980s is becoming a thing of the past. Kentucky is embracing a new style of justice, one that seeks to rehabilitate offenders, not simply to remove them from society. We hope Congress is inspired by our story and follows our lead to pass similar reforms at the federal level. United we stand, divided we fall.
• Matt Bevin, a Republican, is the governor of Kentucky.