On The Floor

Bail reform may be on 2020 General Assembly agenda

Bail reform has captured the attention of some high-ranking members of the General Assembly who are calling for potential action on the issue during the 2020 annual legislative session.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, told the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government yesterday that the General Assembly needs to have a “serious discussion” about reforming the state’s system of holding those accused of crimes in jail pending payment of financial bail.

“I believe we can save a lot of money. I believe also we have to look at people’s rights –innocent before proven guilty—and we need to take a serious look at it and potentially act on it in 2020,” said Thayer.

His comment came after remarks made by Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, that many low-risk pretrial defendants are being held in county jails because they cannot make bail. Twenty percent of people arraigned for a crime in Kentucky stay in jail because they can’t afford bail by some estimates, McGarvey told the committee.

A defendant in Mercer County was held in jail for 18 days on a public intoxication charge because he couldn’t make bail, McGarvey said.

 “The state spent more money to keep him in jail than the fine he was ultimately charged for pleading guilty. So we need to talk about some of these kinds of stories,” he said.

The discussion followed testimony by state officials, representatives from the Kentucky Jailers Association, and testimony from Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery on issues affecting county jails. The testimony comes amid increased attention to jail and prison incarceration by state lawmakers, state Executive Branch officials, and the media.

Most of Campbell County’s net spending “by far” goes to its jail, said Pendery. He said the county’s jail costs comprise a third of his county’s $45 million annual budget, with around $6 million in net jail spending. Overall, he said the county spends more on its jail than any other department. The costs also outdo the county’s pension obligation for now, said Pendery.

Local Government Committee Co-Chair Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, said the General Assembly has either considered or passed some kind of criminal justice reform nearly every year since he was first elected to the House in 2010. He commented on counties’ rising jail and other costs.

“If you look at county government today anywhere across the state, I think what you’re going to find is that the pension cost and the jail cost are the vast majority of the budget that you all have, not the other services that you provide to your community,” Meredith said.

Pendery agreed. “Absolutely right. And the average citizen ought to be pretty upset about that, when we’re spending more on those two categories than we spend on police (or) public transit, or the entire gamut of public services.”

Oldham County Jailer and KJA Vice President Mike Simpson suggested that education of the general public on issues facing county jails and their inmates—around half of which are state inmates housed by jails on a state per diem of $31.34 a day—could be in order. Issues like drug addiction, which afflicts a large percentage of jail inmates, also affects a large number of Kentuckians, he said.

“They should care, because they are directly affected by this unbelievable epidemic that we are facing,” he told the committee.

Two bills proposing monetary bail reform were filed during the 2019 Regular Session. They remained in committee at session’s end.

-REBECCA HANCHETT, LRC

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