Immediate attention needed in corrections to avoid another consent decree

By John Rees

In the 1980s, Kentucky’s corrections system was under a federal consent decree as a result of overcrowding and other persistent problems.

Many positive changes have been made since that time, including improvements in programing and substance abuse treatment, medical services, accreditation, and improved jail standards.

However, there are a growing number of similarities between the state of corrections today and in 1980s that require immediate attention.

Currently, the state facilities are all operating at or near 100 percent of the designed capacity, and almost half the jails are operating at least 150 percent over capacity. This is at best dangerous and at worst unconstitutional.

The Department of Corrections is re-opening three previously closed private facilities as a short-term fix – one that also will reduce the backlog and overcrowding in the local jails. This will certainly help but not resolve the problem.

Similarities between 1980 and 2016

The crowding problem in the 1970s and ’80s initially occurred at state facilities, but when the federal court put capacity limits in place, jails took on the burden. It didn’t take long for the counties to sue the state to require the removal of prisoners in a timely manner and payment of a per-diem for housing state prisoners.

The courts put a 45-day requirement on movement of sentenced felons. But recent data shows that there were 174 state prisoners beyond the 45-day requirement at the Jefferson County jail alone with more than 1,900 statewide. Therefore, a long-term solution of this issue will be required if another period of consent decree management is to be avoided.

The Bevin administration and the legislature should take the lead and control the changes required to address the population issue and the overall corrections spectrum in Kentucky.


1. Develop a plan to break the logjam that currently exists. The new private facilities will be a start, but all of the more than 3,000 inmates currently on controlled intake must be taken into state custody to be fully classified and receive a thorough medical, psychological, needs and security assessment. Consideration should be given to the operation of a temporary classification center in either the western or eastern part of the state to expedite the elimination of the backlog. All offenders must be afforded this professional assessment.

2. Temporarily house additional inmates in some state facilities – Luther Luckett Correctional Center and Little Sandy are possibilities. This would help provide some temporary relief to the current situation in so many of jails that are functioning merely as warehouses.

3. Continue the bipartisan effort for additional sentencing reform, and look for ways to improve the overall effectiveness of programing both in the prisons and jails as well the community. Re-entry, drug treatment and mental health programing must be a critical part of the effort. Gov. Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council is making a positive start, and the efforts of the Koch brothers and others such as Pew Foundation also should be incorporated.

4. Look for ways to reduce the number of individuals sent to prison by passing a law to raise the felony theft level and eliminating felony non-support.

5. Pass Prison Industry Enhancement Certification legislation, which permits the establishment of private industry factories inside Kentucky facilities. The offenders would be paid real wages and receive normal benefits. In turn, they would pay something toward their cost of confinement, pay restitution or child support.

6. Begin to develop more mental health programming in the community to keep these individuals out of jails and prisons. In addition, passage of Tim’s Law (HB 94 in 2016 session) would be a good start by permitting more treatment options in the community and address the issue of the mentally ill who stop taking their medication.

7. Give the Kentucky Department of Corrections the authority to establish quality standards for programming as well as the power to withhold housing state prisoners in substandard jails, and the power to incentivize those jails that are providing positive evidenced-based programing.

Rees is the former commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Corrections and currently provides consulting nationwide through Rees and Associates Correctional Consulting.

By John Rees

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