FRANKFORT (AP) — Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is eyeing sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system during the second legislative session of his term.
Bevin appointed a committee Tuesday to develop what he says will be a compassionate approach to reforming the state’s penal code, which was first written in 1974 and has been added to many times since then. The goal, Bevin said, is to reduce the prison population and save the state money.
“I was elected to fix things that are broken. This is my job,” Bevin said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.
State officials have tried to reform the criminal justice system in the past, with mixed results. Reforms passed during the 2011 legislative session and signed into law by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear included reducing prison time for nonviolent drug offenders. But in the years since its passage, Kentucky’s prison population has increased to more than 23,500 inmates.
In 2015, in response to a spike in drug overdose deaths, lawmakers passed a much-heralded law that expanded drug addiction programs and increased criminal penalties for drug traffickers. Still, drug overdose deaths rose 16 percent in the first year the law was implemented.
But Bevin is part of a growing movement in Republican politics that focuses less on incarceration and more on rehabilitation. In his first month in office, he angered reform advocates when he repealed an executive order that would automatically restore the voting rights of some convicted felons. But later in the year, he called on Senate Republicans to pass a bill that would allow some convicted felons to vacate their judgments. The Senate passed it, and Bevin signed it into law.
Tuesday, Bevin would not say what reforms he had in mind, other than all ideas will be considered and that none of the reforms would jeopardize public safety. The group had its first meeting about an hour after Bevin announced the committee’s creation, part of what Justice Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said will be an aggressive schedule to come up with a list of reforms in time for the state legislature to consider them when it convenes in January.
“(The penal code) has become a patchwork of dysfunctionality,” Tilley said. “There is no consistency.”
Advocates hope the reforms will include reclassifying some of Kentucky’s felonies into misdemeanors, or lesser offenses. Jenna Moll, deputy director of the bipartisan U.S. Justice Action Network, said lawmakers in Utah two years ago reclassified 150 offenses as infractions, meaning a person would have to pay a fine and not be required to come to court.
West Powell, a 45-year-old who served a year in prison for stealing two car radios 27 years ago, said Kentucky would benefit from sending fewer people to prison.
“When you go to prison, it’s a college for criminals,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about giving these people some type of trade training, education, to give them something to move forward with their lives.”