Prior to the mid-1970s, Kentucky’s judiciary looked nothing as it does today. There were nearly 1,000 courts back then, with many often having overlapping jurisdictions, and there was only one high court to handle all appeals. In a word, it was inefficient.
Voters changed all of that in 1975, when they put in place a system that largely mirrors its federal counterpart. In the nearly 40 years since that major step forward, our courts have become an effective tool in both carrying out justice and proactively stopping problems even before they begin. Late last week, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton updated the public on what is happening now with this branch of state government.
During his address to the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, he noted that, out of a state of 4.3 million people, about one million cases flow through the state’s legal system annually. There are specialized courts in many communities, with services dedicated just to families, drug treatment, juveniles and those with issues tied to mental health.
A new pilot program in Jefferson County seeks to extend that innovation. Created last year with the help of a federal grant, it gives veterans access to a team of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment specialists and others who work to help veterans back on their feet. Efforts are underway to provide similar services in Hardin, Fayette and Christian counties, all three of which also have a high percentage of veterans.
After Chief Justice Minton spoke, the committee learned about other progress the criminal justice system is seeing.
Significant strides have been made, for example, since the General Assembly tackled the state’s skyrocketing prison growth in 2011. That landmark law has helped the state and our local governments save millions of dollars while maintaining public safety.
A highlight of that law is a program designed to help select non-violent felons transition back into society under close supervision; its savings are approaching $10 million. Local governments, meanwhile, have saved almost $25 million because of changes to our pre-trial release program. What makes this even better is that defendants are showing up to court at a higher rate than in 2010, and the program’s public safety rate has increased as well.
The overall savings from the 2011 law is projected to top $400 million over the decade. It is taking time to get all of its provisions up to speed, but we remain confident that we can hit this goal.
Some of the savings are being plowed back into programs that treat substance abuse, which is the root cause of many of our crimes. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, nearly 900 beds have been added to our jails, prisons and other recovery programs since 2011, and we can now treat more than 3,800 inmates at a time.
Other savings have allowed the state to hire more workers to increase oversight of probation and parole. Overall, there are more than 42,000 people under some form of supervision, plus 22,100 others who are state inmates in our jails and prisons.
Our work in the years ahead will be to build on all of these gains and to see what more we can to help the Judicial Branch get back on its feet financially. Its budget is almost half of what it was in 2008, Chief Justice Minton said, and the computer system it uses to manage cases is all but obsolete.
The hope is that, as the economy improves, we can begin to comprehensively tackle some of these issues. Given the importance of the courts in our communities, we need to do all we can to help them carry out justice effectively and fairly.
For now, the General Assembly returns to the Capitol this week to begin the main portion of the 2013 legislative session. I will of course update you on what occurs, but in return I ask that you continue to let me know your thoughts on any issue before the state. You can leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.