Prisons

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A new poll shows Kentuckians overwhelmingly support prison time over capital punishment for people convicted of first-degree murder.

Findings from a recent poll by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center show nearly 58 percent of people surveyed believe that lengthy prison terms, including life without parole, are preferable to the death penalty as punishment for conviction of first-degree murder.

Kentuckians also overwhelmingly support a halt to executions until problems with the state’s capital punishment system are addressed, according to the survey. More than 72 percent said they would support a decision by the governor to block executions until issues with the system could be addressed.

“It is important to note that this new poll shows that Kentuckians are increasingly concerned about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” said Marcia Milby Ridings, former president of the Kentucky Bar Association, in a news release.

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You are Letcher County, Kentucky. You are rural, mountainous, and in the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. Your economy is not in good shape. Fox News has called your largest town “the poster child for the war on coal.” You are offered funds to build a new federal prison. It could bring jobs but also brings up troubling moral issues. What do you do?

Call it the prison builder’s dilemma: Letcher County and other rural areas are wrestling with a choice between a potential economic boost and the ethical burden of becoming the nation’s jailers.

Coalfield economies have been hit hard by the industry’s recent decline and Eastern Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District has been among the most affected. Today it has the second-lowest median household income in the country, and the second-lowest rate of labor force participation.

In recent years, a big chunk of the money flowing into the region has come through the Bureau of Prisons. Three federal penitentiaries have been built in the district, and now, money has been set aside to build a fourth — in Letcher County.

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Kentuckians with certain Class D felony convictions are now eligible to apply to clear their criminal records as long as they have stayed out of trouble for five years.

The new law also allows people with gubernatorial pardons to expunge convictions and loosens restrictions for clearing misdemeanor convictions.

Louisville attorney Benham Sims, a former Jefferson District Court judge, said the new law will make it easier for people with criminal records to get jobs and get on with their lives.

“The number one way to reduce a return to jail is employment,” Sims said. “We need to allow these people to move on.”

The new law applies to 61 Class D felonies, which constitute about 70 percent of Class D felonies committed. Those with eligible convictions have to wait five years after completing their sentences (incarceration, parole, restitution, probation, etc.) before applying.

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State prisons are at capacity, county jails are overcrowded and the state is recommending transferring about 1,600 inmates to private prisons that have been shuttered for the past several years.

Officials ended the state’s last private prison contract in 2013, partly as a cost savings measure and also in response to scandals at privately owned prisons in the state.

John Tilley, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said that it was “critical” that the Kentucky consider reopening the private prisons. He said past efforts to reduce the prison population haven’t panned out.

“Parole grant rates are not where we thought they would be,” Tilley said. “Revocations of those on parole are higher than they were projected. And generally there’s so much discretion built into the court system.”

Tilley said that many judges throughout the state haven’t bought into prison reforms, instead sentencing convicted criminals to incarceration over diversion or treatment programs that would keep people out of prison.

Lawmaker to Propose Bill Ending ‘Prison Gerrymandering'

Sep 24, 2014
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A Kentucky state lawmaker says he will introduce a bill that will accurately apportion the state’s prison population in legislative districts.

Louisville Democrat Rep. Darryl Owens says he plans to file a measure for next year’s General Assembly that would change how the U.S. Census counts Kentucky’s prisoners; currently, they are counted in the district of their incarceration. Owen’s bill could place them in districts based on their previous home address, or not count them altogether.

Owens says that he thinks his bill will fare well in the upcoming legislative session. 

“We’ve got to figure out a way to count them, but make sure that they don’t have a big impact on the local community where they can’t even vote and don’t even live,” Owens said.

U-S Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has filed legislation that would require the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to be appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate.