Funding more public defenders in Ky.


Kentucky faces huge financial challenges as we head into a new administration and the first General Assembly session under Gov. Matt Bevin. So it’s encouraging when a group desperate for more money comes to the table with solid solutions for how to come up with what it needs.

That’s the case with Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan. As the Courier-Journal’s Kristina Goetz detailed over the past two Sundays, the state’s public defenders under Monahan have caseloads that exceed the national standard. Many are spread thin over vastly too much territory. And low salaries make recruiting difficult.

The result is that poor clients who depend on them may not be getting the best representation and that could ultimately land the state in court for failing to meet its obligations to them.

But Monahan isn’t just begging for more money to hire more lawyers to do the job. He’s pushing 10 reforms to the state’s criminal justice system that he says will save more than enough money to fund his department adequately.

Monahan’s reform agenda:

Reclassifying minor misdemeanors to violations.

Creating a “gross misdemeanor” classification for low-level felons.

Promoting employment and reducing recidivism by creating Class D felony expungement.

Reducing days in the county jail by creating a “clear and convincing” standard for the pretrial release decision.

Presuming parole for eligible low-risk offenders.

Modifying violent offender and persistent felony offender statutes.

Providing alternative sentencing plans for flagrant non-support instead of imprisonment for a felony.

Creating alternatives to incarceration.

Increasing the felony theft limit from $500 to $2,000.

Reducing waste by limiting capital prosecutions.

As the CJ’s Tom Loftus reported last week, the state will need to spend $15 million more in the next two budgets to pay for a higher number of inmates and higher medical costs for its burgeoning prison population — if nothing changes.

Monahan isn’t alone in thinking it’s time to keep more people out of jail and prison and spend the savings on other things. The Council of State Governments Justice Center describes “justice reinvestment” as a “data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest that savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism.”

The idea has supporters on the left and the right, nationally and in Kentucky. A nascent coalition — Kentucky Smart on Crime — already has endorsed felony expungement and expects to offer additional proposals by the time the legislature convenes next month.

Its members include the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the Kentucky Council of Churches, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

It is a rare opportunity that Kentucky has so many disparate groups that want to tackle this problem. We can move forward on proven policy and save money at the same time.

The General Assembly will doubtlessly have its hands full dealing with the pension crisis and the resulting implications for the budget overall — as well as Bevin’s likely extensive agenda as the first Republican governor in years. It would seem as if “reinvestment” would appeal to a businessman like Bevin. Not only will it save the state money in a cash-strapped time, it’s also the right thing to do for the thousands of defendants whose civil rights are at risk.

The Courier-Journal

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