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Jails, legislators look at ways to fight recidivism, overcrowding in Ky. jails

An official said changing the way people address substance use disorder can be a long-term solution for jail overcrowding


Inmates prepare meals in the kitchen at the Madison County Detention Center in Richmond, Kentucky.

Photo/Michael Clubb of Lexington Herald-Leader via TNS

By Taylor Six
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — For State Representative Keturah Herron, the impact of the drug epidemic is one that hits close to home.

Herron’s cousin experienced substance use disorder and died as a result, leaving behind three children.

That is why on her second day as an official member of the state House of Representatives, she introduced House Bill 776, which would have encouraged local health departments to establish harm reduction centers imposing community service and participation in educational programming for drug possession.

The educational programming is aimed to help reduce substance use disorders and ultimately, reduce incarceration rates.

“This issue in general is near and dear to me,” Herron said. “As to this specific piece of legislation, in order to impact and fix Kentucky’s overdose issues that we have, as well as overcrowding in local jails, that we have to approach this issue in a public health issue that is informed by evidence-based harm reduction and restorative justice practices.”

But the bill was unable to move in the legislature, which Herron said was due in part to her election in the middle of the session.

“I came in and had two days to file legislation at that point in the session. It is hard to get a new topic out there and get everyone informed,” Herron explained. “People don’t realize there is over 1,000 bills between the House and the Senate. As someone files a bill, you have to educate the public and your fellow legislators.

“... In the timing of me being sworn in as a legislator, I just didn’t have time to get that movement.”

She felt her bill would have been a paradigm shift in Kentucky drug policy that would alleviate human harm, suffering and death and address drug abuse from a public health perspective. She felt it could also lower incarceration rates.

In addition to HB776 stalling out, Gov. Andy Beshear also vetoed a bill that would have attempted to expand educational opportunities for previous jail inmates by allowing them access to Kentucky Education Excellence Scholarship money.

“Need-based financial aid is an important tool for increasing college degree and credential attainment among low-income Kentuckians,” Kentucky Center for Economic Policy Analyst Carmen Mitchell said in a May 5 report. “Higher education has been shown to reduce recidivism, and currently 41% of Kentuckians leaving incarceration end up returning after two years.”

Mitchell told the Herald-Leader that changing the way people address substance use disorder can be a long-term solution for jail overcrowding.

“In our reporting we know prosecution of a drug user is a major driver of incarceration in Kentucky,” she said. “Criminalized drug use drives more use in Kentucky and is growing the population in our jails. We need to change our mindset on that.”

Beshear stated in his veto message that he supported the original intentions of the bill, but felt drafting errors could lead to “unforeseen and unintended consequences that undermine the bill and the goals it seeks to achieve.”

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy analysts said the final version of the bill “included harmful provisions” which would have reduced the opportunities for both current and formerly incarcerated individuals.

How a Central Kentucky jail aims to reduce recidivism

Steve Tussey, the Madison County jailer, said his facility attempts to lower drug-based recidivism through discussion about recovery. Drug-based charges account for about 80% of the jail’s nearly 400 inmates. The Madison County Detention Center only has 184 beds.

As part of an $80 million grant with the UK HEALing Communities Study, the Madison County Detention Center employs a recovery specialist full-time who helps inmates prior to their release and supplies them with Narcan, training, transportation, housing, and financial services.

A man in long-term recovery who was once incarcerated at the Madison County Detention Center, Mike St. John, also speaks regularly to inmates about the option of recovery. St. John’s speaking sessions are called the “Road to Recovery” and they’re held weekly. The program is “doing extremely well,” Tussey told the Herald-Leader.

“The inmates love it, and most Thursday evenings (St. John) does two sessions because it is so successful,” Tussey said. “Really, it motivates them to pursue other avenues once they are released.”

Tussey said the program helps inmates find different life paths to pursue once they leave jail.

“The biggest problem with our recidivism is once they are released, it is to the same environment, and they go back to that because it is all that they know,” Tussey said. “These services give additional knowledge and information so they can pursue other options that will keep them out of trouble.”

Pulaski County Jailer Anthony McCollum said each community is different, but he focuses primarily on making inmates ready for societal re-entry through workforce programs and educational opportunity partnerships. McCollum runs a detention center that houses more than 300 inmates in a 216-bed facility.

“I think it is a community effort and each community has to deal with it in their own way, but we take a proactive approach to getting the ones we can into college, finding housing, and trying to get them identification in order to get them jobs,” McCollum said. “We have staff here that helps with these things for those eligible for release.”

McCollum said each community needs to focus on re-entry rates because it’s beneficial for the person who’s being released, their family and their community if they have a job and housing when they get out.

Tussey, the Madison County jailer, said discussion on lowering incarceration rates is a “double edged sword.” He said work can be done to reduce incarceration rates, but contended that “on the other side of that, we are sworn to protect the people in the community and as long as (criminals) keep committing crimes, we have to put them in jail. It is a public service we are accustomed to.

“We lock them up to make the community safe, but we are locking up so many that we are running out of money to afford the materials and there is no place to keep them. We do the best we can on both sides and try to protect the public and maintain a reasonable cost to taxpayers.”

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