Seminar combats Kentucky crime

By Gary Norwood Hermann

Kentucky is a world leader.

The commonwealth is not proud of its record, however. Kentucky has the highest percentage of incarcerated adults in the country.

To combat this fact, the UK Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues co-sponsored a seminar along with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the CUNY Center on Media Crime & Justice and the Pew Center on the States to address the issue Friday at the Boone Center.

The Center on Media, Crime & Justice brings journalist together with policy makers. At the Boone Center on Friday, that’s exactly what happened. There were four panels as well as a luncheon keynote presentation.

Pew Center Public Safety Performance Project Director Adam Gelb  revealed that 2.3 million Americans are in prison, one in 100 adults are behind bars and one in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control.

One day in prison costs more than 23 days on probation, and budgets for correctional facilities dwarf those of higher education, Gelb said.

JFA Institute President James Austin said 40 percent of Kentucky’s inmate stream is drug criminals. He also said only 15 percent of inmates actually do a drug treatment program in prison. He also pointed out that Kentucky’s crime rate is well below the national average.

State leaders had an opportunity to tell the panel what they have been doing to combat recidivism for prisoners.

“The state legislature should be commended,” Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Cabinet President J. Michael Brown said. “The Governor, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House said we would join with Pew and move forward.”

Brown spoke highly of the bi-partisan task force the state now has working on the issue.

“We need to put people behind bars that we are afraid of,” Brown said, “and not because we are mad at them.”

State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Tom Jensen and State House Judiciary Committee Chair John Tilley both believe Kentucky can run its state justice system more efficiently. Kentucky’s funds would be better spent on keeping people out of prison and the money saved  on not keeping people incarcerated can be spent on other programs, they said.

Community activists were able to tell what they have been doing to rehabilitate criminals and their victims as well as ask for the media’s help in getting their message out.

“There is a frustration over the inability to find work and overcome mistakes of the past,” Louisville Community Liaison Rev. Roosevelt Lightsy Jr. said. “There is a frustration on the [police] officer’s part that they are barking with no teeth.”

“A felony is the equivalent of economic capital punishment,” Brown said.

Operation UNITE President and CEO Karen Engle had a message for the journalists.

“Any time you can put a face with a problem, it changes everything,” Engel said. “If you can help us spark hope, that’s the number one thing the media can do.”