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OUR VIEW: Criminal justice reform long overdue in Kentucky

In 2019, Kentucky lawmakers did worse than fail to pass desperately needed reforms to the state’s criminal justice system; they basically ignored the problems and proposed solutions entirely.

Last session, Rep. John Blanton (R-Salyersville) was one legislator who attempted to move the needle on what has been an incredibly expensive problem in the commonwealth for decades. It’s a problem that’s expensive in terms of the financial cost to jail an ever-growing number of Kentuckians. It’s also expensive in terms of the harmful impacts to families and individuals’ futures. And it’s expensive in terms of economic and workforce development.

Kentucky jails far too many people who are non-violent, not yet convicted of a crime and/or would be out of jail if they just had a few hundred bucks in their bank account. There was a chance in 2019 to make things better by restricting the use of money as a barrier to getting out of jail; it was a chance the legislature didn’t even look at.

This year, Blanton isn’t going to bring his bill back, according to the Herald-Leader. It seems there is no more support, perhaps less, for this needed reform now than there was 12 months ago.

Why is that? It could be opposition from judges and prosecutors who refuse to listen to reason on financial bond conditions. There are thousands of Kentuckians in jail right now who have yet to be convicted of a crime and qualify for release, but because a judge imposed a financial bond, they cannot get out unless they find $5,000, or $1,000 or $500. The result seems obvious once it’s stated: Poor people charged with crimes stay in jail because they can’t pay. They lose their jobs, they lose their children and they lose out on the ability to defend themselves well in court.

But opponents of reforms don’t like change and they’re comfortable with the broken system they know, rather than a new system they would have to figure out again. They couch their opposition in terms of “judges’ discretion,” arguing that limiting the use of financial bonds limits judges’ ability to do as they see fit in each individual case.

But we already limit judges’ discretion in many ways. A judge cannot, for example, put you in stocks in the town square. That’s an archaic, humiliating form on punishment we no longer want or need.

Using financial bonds as a default condition of release is also an outdated, ineffective, discriminatory form of punishment we no longer need.

Reforms proposed in the past would make financial bonds exceptions rather than the rule. They would also potentially expand judges’ discretion to keep potentially dangerous individuals behind bars without using money. But those against reforms want judges to have discretion to keep making bad decisions by imposing financial conditions on release. 

And unfortunately, perhaps because pretending to be “tough on crime” is still a politically viable strategy, it seems they will get to keep making those bad decisions for at least another year.

But eventually, reformers will win.

Judges will get to keep defaulting to financial bonds until enough people realize that “tough on crime” in today’s world really means “tough on your brother,” “tough on your mom,” “tough on your granddaughter” — tough on pretty much anyone unlucky enough to be poor and fall into addiction.

At that point, reforms will pass, and pro-financial bail judges will change their tunes — or their next elections will be tough on them.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper’s editorial board. The board is comprised of publisher Michael Caldwell and Bluegrass Newsmedia editors Whitney Leggett and Ben Kleppinger. To inquire about a meeting with the board, contact Caldwell at 759-0095.