A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Prisons are bursting at seams, nonviolent prisoners deserve pardons; devil is in the details

Let me put my cards on the table:

I am one of those people who would rather see 100 guilty individuals go free than witness one innocent person go to prison. I believe it should be extremely difficult – emphasize, extremely difficult – to deprive anyone of his or her freedom. The death penalty is immoral, savage, and should immediately be abolished in all 50 states, DC and the federal government.

There are far too many people in the nation’s prisons, many of them there simply because they are black. The United States has, by far, a higher percentage of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, the U.S. has 698 individuals imprisoned per 100,000 population, second in the world only to Seychelles with 799. Russia, not exactly known for being easy on offenders, has 445 per 100,000 population.

The overall prison population in the U.S. sits at about 2.2 million, which naturally fluctuates from day to day. That’s more than the population of the state of New Mexico. In fact, if the nation’s prison population constituted a state it would rank 36th. Next is China, that great promoter of human rights, at 1.65 million. The U.S., Russia, and China have more people in prisons than the rest of the world combined.

Matt Bevin

That’s ludicrous and Kentucky, to no one’s surprise, is certainly playing its part, The Bluegrass ranked 18th in the nation regarding the number of prisoners behind bars at the end of 2016. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the state’s prison population reached 34,700, meaning it would be the sixth-largest city in the state, right behind Covington, if collected in one spot. Only eight states have more prisoners per 100,000 population – 1,010 – than Kentucky.

So, and it grieves me to say this, former Gov. St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire Bevin, recently denied a second term in Frankfort because, well, he acted like a moron, was absolutely right when he said the Commonwealth was in dire need of criminal justice reform.

Back in 2016, his first year in office, Bevin created a new Council on Criminal Justice Reform, asserting at that time the need for change was clear — Kentucky spent nearly half a billion dollars on corrections in 2015, consuming funds incarcerating individuals for non-violent crimes that could otherwise benefit classrooms and job training programs.

Meanwhile, he noted in a release, “inmate populations at prisons and jails remain high, criminal sentences are often inconsistent and Kentucky is leading the nation in the number of children with an incarcerated parent.”

Of course, as anyone who followed Bevin’s dismal political record likely expected, the whole enterprise has blown up in his face. His actions upon leaving office likely catapulted the cause for criminal justice reform, already teetering on the brink, into oblivion.

Just before he was shoved out of the first floor of the state Capitol and had the door slammed behind him, St. Matt issued pardons or commutations of sentences to more than 650 people, which, it’s fair to say, is a whopping number.

Most of those, frankly, were well-taken. A vast majority involved non-violent crimes. Drug offenders benefitted the most from Bevin’s beneficence. The governor issued an executive order on Dec. 9  commuting the sentences of 336 inmates serving time on convictions for possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. 

The commutations either fully or partially reduced the offenders’ sentences’ It didn’t reverse the conviction or restore the offenders’ civil rights. In a letter attached to the order, Bevin stated the designated inmates had been screened for various risk factors and that 27 had completed a substance abuse program.

Had he stopped there Bevin would have been deserving of praise. The Administrative Office of the Courts issued a report that, as of Dec. 1, the state was holding 7,317 people charged with low-level drug and property crimes at a time when the commonwealth’s prison and jail system was already dangerously overcrowded. As of Aug. 21, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky’s 12 state prisons were full forcing the state to house thousands of inmates in the state’s 76 local jails.

In other words – and yes, it sticks in one’s craw – Bevin did the right thing and raised necessary questions about the handling and treatment of drug and property offenses that plague the corrections system.

But we’re talking about Matt Bevin here, the man who sought to reduce crime in Louisville’s West End by having people stand on street corners to issue prayers.

To make a long story short, the now ex-governor also, according to numerous published reports, issued reprieves to a convicted murderer who had decapitated a female co-worker and stuffed her body into a barrel, a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old and another man convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Not the sort of folks Kentucky’s forefathers had in mind when they granted pardon powers to the governor.

And it doesn’t end there. The Courier Journal of Louisville is reporting that the FBI is taking a gander at Bevin’s acts of clemency. One, in particular, may have stoked the feds’ interests – St. Matt the Divine, it seems, granted a pardon to a Knox County man, Patrick Baker, who had served two years of a 19-year sentence for reckless homicide involving the death of a man during a home break-in.

It seems that Baker’s brother and sister-in-law held a fundraiser at their Corbin home last year to help retire the debt from Bevin’s successful 2015 gubernatorial campaign. Of the $21,500 raised, the CJ found, at least $9,500 came from Baker’s family and other Knox County residents with the same last name.

Now that, understandably, raises some questions. Bevin has denied any wrongdoing – he claims Baker was framed and wrongfully convicted – but it doesn’t look kosher no matter what angle you come at it with.

So what could have been a true and courageous strike for criminal justice reform has devolved into outrage and accusations. The families of some of those affected by the pardons and commutations are making their fury known, the probes are underway and there still remain uncounted numbers of non-violent individuals who should be somewhere other than behind bars in LaGrange, Eddyville or any other hoosegow.

The poor drug jamokes, many of them serving time because of the terrible OxyContin plague that has enveloped much of the state are, ironically, the true victims of this tragicomedy. It’s Christmas, and they’re still sitting in a place that doesn’t do anyone any good.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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