Kentucky’s Recidivism Rate Hits 10-year Low–“DC Public Safety”

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2011/03/kentuckys-recidivism-rate-hits-10-year-low-dc-public-safety/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  At our microphones today is Secretary Michael Brown.  Secretary Brown has been there in the State of Kentucky with the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet for the last four years.  He has a long history of public service as a judge, as a prosecutor, as a law director for the city of Louisville, U.S. Army as a Captain, he’s a gentleman that’s been around for quite some time, and one of the reasons why we asked Secretary Brown to be by our microphones today, is that he’s gotten a lot of news.  We have a couple news services that come into us here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and the first one that caught my eye was from the dailynews.com, and it said “State’s Two Year Recidivism Rate Hits a 10-Year Low,” and all of us within the criminal justice system were struggling to do just that.  We’re struggling to bring down our recidivism rates, that’s enough to make it interesting, but it goes on to the Courier Journal, in terms of Gov. Beshear’s signing a new act in terms of rearranging the way that Kentucky does business, and it goes all the way to the Wall Street Journal, where a recent article says that “States Rethink Drug Law,” so the state of Kentucky has gotten an awful lot of publicity lately, national publicity, and a lot of people are looking at the state of Kentucky in terms of what it is that they’ve done, but again, for me, the most intriguing part of this is the headline “State’s Two Year Recidivism Rate Hits a 10-Year Low,” and with that introduction, I present Secretary Michael Brown, secretary for the last four years.  Mr. Secretary, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Michael Brown:  I’m glad to be with you, Leonard.

Len Sipes:  Okay.  Now, what we have with the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, you have an operation much like mine in the 14 years when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, where we had State Police, we had corrections, we had a lot of agencies.  You have the same thing for the State of Kentucky, correct?

Michael Brown:  That is correct.  It is the largest cabinet in state government, and we have right around 8,000 employees in the cabinet, and my major units include the department of corrections, the Kentucky State Police, our juvenile justice, and then we have medical examiners and criminal justice training and drug control policy, and just a number of agencies that are attached, including our public defenders.

Len Sipes:  One of the things that you mentioned in terms of the pre-interview is that at one time, Kentucky had the fastest growing prison population in the country, correct?

Michael Brown:  Well that is correct.  Actually, Gov. Beshears took office in December of 2007, and shortly after his first address to the General Assembly in January of 2008, the Pew Center on the States came out with a report that listed Kentucky as having the fastest growing prison population by percentage in the country.  That was something that took a number of us by surprise.  We knew that corrections had been an escalating budget item.  We didn’t know that we had crossed the finish line first in that particular situation.

Len Sipes:  Now one of the things that Kentucky, as well as virtually every state in the United States is struggling with is this concept of a corrections budget that a lot of people in a lot of statehouses throughout the country, they’re coming to the conclusion that the corrections budget is growing out of control, that it’s taking up too much of the budget, that there’s no way that you can sustain that level of an increase in the prison population.  It’s taking away from funding for college, it’s taking away from funding for seniors, and it’s taking away from funding for schools.  It has a tremendous impact on not just criminal justice, but has a tremendous impact in terms of the overall budget, and what a lot of states are trying to do, what they’re trying to wrestle with is this whole concept of how do we rein in the corrections budget without having an adverse impact on public safety, and that’s why I keep coming back to the same issue, recidivism, you hit a ten-year low.  How did you do that?

Michael Brown:  Well that was a target that frankly, we just decided we had to aim at.  When we were looking at our population, and clearly, the only way to reduce your, or the main way to reduce your prison budgets, your correctional budget, is by means of population, and when we look at our population, we know it’s made up of basically two segments.  We have people who have recently committed a felony that they’re going to be sent to our facilities for, but we’d also found that a fair percentage of all the people who come through the doors each year are coming back.  They’re returnees.  They’re return customers.  And that’s a recidivism rate, those who are coming back after a 2-3 year period of being released, and when we looked at those recidivists, we realized that a fair amount of them are what we call re-entry figures.  They’re ones who have gotten out, they’ve gone back out into the community, within, as everyone in this business knows, the likelihood is failure is highest in those first few months to a year, and those individuals then come back.  When they do come back, they come back and stay, generally, for a longer period of time than they were in for the first period.  So that becomes a, and I’ll give you an example.  In Kentucky, if you have a, you committed a crime, and you’re eligible for parole after serving 20% of your sentence, and then you go out and you violate your parole and you’re returned, it’s likely that you’re going to be in for a period of time longer than that initial 20%.

Len Sipes:  Understood.

Michael Brown:  So we, in my cabinet, I cannot control what the courts are doing.  We cannot completely control what the legislature is going to do vis-à-vis what becomes a crime, so our target had to be, by just a natural process, how can we improve our re-entry efforts, how can we cut that recidivism rate, and a cut of 1,000 prisoners at $21,000 or so a year starts to add up to real money if you can succeed at this.

Len Sipes:  Now you said that you went to the Pew Center for the States, and they provided some technical assistance?

Michael Brown:  Well, that was well down the road.  What had happened was, we had taken a number of different approaches to try to address this issue.  The Governor, in January of 2008 had asked me to convene what’s called our Criminal Justice Council, it’s a large body involving all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system, to make recommendations on the penal code and the drug laws, and we came up with reports but were unsuccessful, to a large extent, in getting many things passed through the legislature.  Then the legislature itself came up with a joint resolution creating another committee to look at these issues, and then finally, this most recently concluded legislature had come up with a task force on the penal code and substance abuse, which was a very small group.  Only seven people.  And historically, those seven, it was bipartisan, a Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary, a Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court sat himself, I represented the executive branch, we had a retired commonwealth attorney, a former public advocate, and a county judge executive.  We started work on reviewing, particularly targeting what we were going to do with probation, parole, and reentry, and also our drug laws.  Then, in the middle of that process, somewhat in the middle of it, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project partnered with us, the legislature put up some seed money of $2,000, and last August, and August of 2010, we announced a collaborative effort where Pew would give us technical assistance, primarily working with the committee I described to come up with a legislative package which was, in fact, introduced in the session which most recently concluded.

Len Sipes:  Now what do you, the group of, the small group of individuals, did you feel comfortable with a game plan coming out of that, and then Pew was technical assistance beyond that, do I have that correct?

Michael Brown:  Well, what happened was, the task force had started its work, and we had narrowed the focus of this particular task force, particularly to looking at our drug laws, recognizing that that was the largest driver of, certainly our revolving criminal population.  There’s always going to be a place for those incorrigibles and those offenders, the violent ones, but as I looked at Kentucky’s population of 20-odd thousand, clearly, if you took away those who were in as persistent felony offenders and the most violent offenders, that still left about 15,000 individuals that were in, and the bulk, I’m talking about the very large bulk of those 15,000, were in because of something to do with drugs.  Now, what the Pew folks brought to us was the ability to bring evidence based, basically studies, and attempts from all over the country on how to deal with some of these issues and boil them down in a manner that we could literally take the best practices from all over the country and then, if they had a recipe, we had the seasoning to make it come out to a Kentucky perspective, so to speak.

Len Sipes:  Well, that’s a beautiful description.  I love that!  What do you think was the most important, give me a couple of the most important policies that came out of all this.  Different people have been caught up in crime and drugs for decades, it’s not easy to get them out of that cycle, it’s not easy to break the cycle.  What were the principal ingredients in terms of how you proceeded to cut that recidivism rate?

Michael Brown:  Well, the first thing is, you have to recognize that the cycle needs to be broken, and it’s not simply, it’s not just a matter of “Just Say No.”  We have, for example, some really successful drug courts here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but the requirements for those coming into the drug court system, which is somewhat of a diversionary process, were pretty strict, and that really didn’t do much for those who had already offended and managed to find a way into the facilities to stop them from coming back.  We have to recognize that breaking that cycle of a true abuser is going to take long term treatment, anywhere from 6-9 months.  It’s not just simply going to be, you know, tell them to stop taking it.  And it also involves a situation where our probation and parole practices have to be aimed at reinforcing those principles once an individual is either on probation or parole, because there are relapses.  Recognizing that, we don’t want the relapse to take someone all the way back behind the fence, as we like to say.

Len Sipes:  Right.  So in essence, what you have is a prison population, they’re eventually released, they come out onto the street, and a lot of them, and for a lot of states throughout the country, when I was with the Maryland, at times, it approached 70% of the people coming into the prison systems were already on parole and probation.  I’ve seen figures ranging anywhere from 50% to 70% of the prison intake are those people already on parole and probation, so that revolving door, that sense of life or prison or the criminal justice system on the installment plan seems to be alive and well in most states, so in essence, what I’m hearing is that what you all decided to do was to stop that cycle, to break that cycle, and it sounds like you’re focusing on specifically, is it nonviolent or violent offenders, but your principal goal is to get them involved in long term drug treatment?

Michael Brown:  Well the first thing, we want to recognize what were the biggest drivers, and the biggest driver in the population was drugs.  That entailed us making adjustments to our drug laws which hadn’t been made in many, many years, and to include provisions in those, which are going to drive these individuals, well first, it was going to drive those who are the users.  We definitely wanted to separate the traffickers, those who are truly involved in the criminal enterprise, the profiteers, and separate them from what you might call the peddlers, or just the abusers.  And we know that that’s how it breaks down.  We also needed, in Kentucky, because of our, and I don’t want to call it unique, but it definitely is different from, say, some of the other states we looked at, we have a diverse sort of drug problem.  Parts of our state, our drug problem is driven almost entirely by the abuse of prescription drugs.

Len Sipes:  Ah, that is different.

Michael Brown:  Pills that generally come in from other states.  Florida in particular, if you don’t mind me taking a shot at a governor I won’t name right now, but we have a large influx of prescription drugs that come in from other states, and they are having a devastating effect on one part of our state.  Other parts of our state, we see some of the more traditional things that involve meth, cocaine, or heroin to a certain extent, and then of course, you know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kentucky was the second largest eradicator of marijuana, which is probably our largest crop of any other state in the country.  So our drug laws had to be tailored to address this, you know, multifaceted issue, but going for a moment, just to go back to what you were saying about the returnees’ situation, I had it said, and I was actually called cavalier for saying this, even though it’s true, if my population today is right around 20,500, if they live long enough, all but about 105 of those individuals are going to get out of prison and are going to come back in those communities, and that is a percentage that the public doesn’t have.  The public perceives that individuals commit a crime, they get caught, they get prosecuted, and then they go away forever.  Well they don’t go away from us, and what we have to do is do something about those 95-99% that are coming back into that community.  You break that cycle, that’s where you make the real gains in public safety, you make real economic gains, because if you can turn a large segment of those folks back into productive citizens as opposed to where we supply all their needs, my medical budget is around $60 million just for our felony population.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, and people have no idea how difficult it is to run a huge prison system and how expensive it is to run a huge prison system.  I don’t, I just get the sense that people have no clue, but they’re finding out because of all of the controversy as to the money going in the correction systems, and people are saying, gee, wouldn’t this be better spent, in terms of other programs, but again, I reemphasize this, it’s just not a matter of dollars here, it’s just not a matter of reducing the correctional dollars, you’ve been able to cut the rate of recidivism back into the state of Kentucky for a 10-year low, and so you’re doing it and protecting public safety at the same time.

Michael Brown:  Well, that’s the ultimate goal.  That’s the win-win.  Obviously, public safety is our primary concern, but clearly, when you recognize that by breaking these cycles, and by decreasing that recidivism rate, the benefit there is, in fact, public safety, because that individual doesn’t go out and commit that crime, is not a bane on society anymore –

Len Sipes:  Right, and they’re huge savings in terms of crime, in terms of the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to track him down, to convict him, to put him back into the prison system, I mean, this is an ungodly expensive proposition, and what you’re doing is not just saving money, but there are fewer crimes being committed.

Michael Brown:  That’s the goal, and we are in a situation, we had, as you know, the states, our state certainly, we have to operate under a balanced budget, so we can’t spend more than we have.

Len Sipes:  We’re more than halfway through the program ladies and gentlemen.  I want to reintroduce Michael Brown, the Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet for the State of Kentucky.  The website, www.justice.ky.gov.  I’ll be giving out that website at the end of the program.  Okay, Mr. Secretary, we’ve set up everything, I think, I mean in terms of the 10-year low on recidivism, we’ve set up the fact that you’re trying to break the cycle, that you’re looking not at traffickers, but you’re looking specifically at the users, that you have a prescription drug problem and a marijuana problem there in the state of Kentucky, it sounds like you have across the board cooperation on the part of both sides of the political spectrum, the Republicans and the Democrats coming together and agreeing to this overall philosophy, so that part of it I’ve got correct, correct?

Michael Brown:  That is correct, and the recent bill that passed, which is House Bill 463, which Pew assisted us on, and that task force worked on, it passed our Senate, which is a Republican controlled Senate, unanimously, went back to the House of Concurrence and passed 96-1.  That’s an overwhelming approval for the work of the task force and recognition of the issues we have to deal with.  Now we should only be so cooperative on the other issues in the state, but at least on this one, we had virtual unanimity.

Len Sipes:  There’s an organization called Right On Crime, which is key Republicans at the national level who are coming together to endorse this concept, and a lot of individuals have said to themselves, okay, well this is no longer a Democratic issue, it’s no longer a Republican issue, it’s now a bipartisan issue.  They want the criminal justice system, they want we within the criminal justice system to be more effective and prove that effectiveness, and that is why I’m beating this point to death.  There are a lot of states who are doing this, and they’re starting to do it, and they’re examining it, and they’re putting money into programs in the prison system, and they’re putting money into the programs at the parole and probation level, but they haven’t yet produced data that shows a reduction in recidivism, and to the average person listening to this program, recidivism, again, are people coming back into the criminal justice system because they’ve either committed new crimes or technical violations, but as our people like to point out, a technical is a person doesn’t show up for supervision, that’s a technical violation, so the term  technical violation becomes minimized in the minds of some because it sounds trite, but if you don’t show up for supervision, or if you’re ordered to go into drug treatment and you don’t go or you don’t cooperate, those are technical violations as well, so some of this is a matter of taking greater risks with the individual that you have under supervision, that you don’t automatically send them back to prison, you try to stabilize him through programs in the community, and you understand that relapse and problems come with the supervision process, and just because you have 2 or 3, you don’t automatically send the person back to prison.  Do I have that correct?

Michael Brown:  That is correct.  In fact, some of the things that we had done in the budget bill, and that, which have been also codified in a new piece of legislation, is to give our parole and probation officers some additional tools to work with, including, for the first time here in Kentucky, some intermediate sanctions, where rather than, in the prior world, an individual would violate a condition of parole or probation, there would be a warrant issued, they’d be arrested, they’d go to jail, they’d sit in jail awaiting a process involving going before the administrative law judge, the administrative law judge, if they found probable cause, would then turn the case to the parole board, most of that time, that individual continued to sit in jail awaiting the outcome of it, and then if the parole board revoked, they’d go back to prison.  We found that a better way to approach some of those individuals, obviously, this doesn’t work for anybody, but is to make use of intermediate sanctions, and they can be a ramped up scale of sanctions, everything from, we’re going to put you on an electronic GPS monitoring device to make sure you don’t go where we told you not to go, maybe have that thing vibrate on your ankle as you approach some place where we know you’re likely to get back into trouble, or we can put you back in jail, but for limited periods of time without having to go through that whole process, so we don’t cut off whatever positive ties someone has created, either with a job or family connections when they have been outside of the institution, because as I’ve said, once they come back on that violation, statistics show us that they’re going to serve a longer period of time having violated than they served initially.

Len Sipes:  And the whole idea, I’m assuming, is one of the universal issues that states are struggling with, is that the question becomes, who do you want to be in, who do you want to occupy that prison bed?  Do you want a nonviolent offender who’s tied into drugs to occupy that prison bed, that very, very expensive prison bed, or do you want the violent offender, someone who’s posing a clear and present risk to public safety?  That dichotomy, I would imagine, exists in Kentucky as well, and I would imagine that was part of your discussions.

Michael Brown:  As was said many, many times during our hearings, and as we visited with all the stakeholders, we’ve got to differentiate between the people that we’re scared of and the people that we’re just mad at, and you know, once you get past being mad at these individuals, the key is what do we do, in many situations, to stop them from returning. Now Kentucky had been very fortunate, a few years back, we got one of the grants from the Second Chance Act, we had started our reentry program, we had started working with a new risk assessment tool, and in fact, that use of the risk assessment tool has been so successful that it’s built into the new legislation with the aim that we’re going to get that LSI used from Day 1 that someone comes in the system, so judges will eventually be looking at some of these factors when they’re making bail decisions, so that our pre-sentence officers are making use of that assessment as they give judges recommendations for sentencing, so that when an individual is processed into the institution, we have a lot of data available into what, if any, programs are going to work for a particular individual, and that’s far different from a shotgun effect that we used to take.  Our approach before, and I don’t blame anybody for this, this is not throwing a rock at the system, but it’s how you view your job, and our job before was to simply keep these people away from the public, count them and make sure you have the same number you started out in the morning when they go to bed at night, and then do it again.  Now some of our focus, both institutionally, and certainly in parole and probation, is to how can we prevent this particular individual from coming back to see us again?

Len Sipes:  Well, you’re going towards the larger scale, because that’s not just the state of Kentucky, again, this is something that every state in the United States is wrestling with, the attorney general, Eric Holder, the assistant attorney general, Laurie Robinson, the folks at the U.S. Department of Justice, the people who are trying to develop this whole sense of justice reinvestment, which is essentially, if you save money in terms of people coming back into prisons, the states would put more of that money, so if you save the state, any state, $50 million, and the fact that you didn’t send that many people back, a certain amount of that $50 million would go back into programs and go back into efforts to keep people from coming back into the system, so this is a larger, this is not just a conversation for the state of Kentucky, this is a conversation that’s happening in virtually every statehouse in the country, and again, not to beat a dead horse, but you’re the one who’s proven that you can reduce recidivism.  Other states have reduced recidivism, but you hit a 10 year low.  That’s what intrigued me, and that’s why, one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you.

Michael Brown:  Well, and again, a lot of it is, you know, I hate to use the cliché, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.  But if you go around and you really get a focused effort in, these are very smart, dedicated professionals, and it’s simply a matter of saying, here’s what our goal is, this is what our mission is going to be in this situation, and believe me, most of our probation and parole officers, they don’t want to just be in the arrest business.  They don’t want to be, they would rather have people succeed, because when they do these home visits, and when they do these assessments, they run up against everyone else who’s touched by these individuals, and it’s much, much better that these individuals succeed than fail on the outside.

Len Sipes:  I’ll give you one example.  In the state of Maryland, where we had a person come out of the prison system, his wife let him come back home, he was getting along well with the wife, getting along well with the kids, he was working, and he was making his restitution, and he was going to substance abuse therapy, he was doing everything that you want him to do, and yet he celebrated by getting high.  He celebrated his successes by getting high, and there’s a certain point where the 4th, 5th, 6th positive drug test, I mean, you have to sit down with him and say to him, look, you’re about to blow the whole thing.  We’re about to send you back to prison, there’s a certain point we have no choice.  You know, when you have a couple more, and then finally, we were able to intervene, and he finally stopped celebrating his successes by getting high, but if that person had committed a crime while that happened, the newspapers would have come to us and said you knew he was doing drugs, why didn’t you put him back in prison?  That’s a big dilemma for people at the state level, that’s a big dilemma for us all within the criminal justice system, because we are taking somewhat increased risks with the people that we have under supervision.

Michael Brown:  Well, and that’s where, as I said, the beauty of this law, it’s building in, and one other thing I do want to touch on is the reinvestment aspect, but it’s building in a way to make these risk assessments.  Nothing is going to be 100% perfect.  But the key is, rather than, sometimes our intuition is just flat wrong.  We think that, oh, that looks like a great program.  Why?  Well, it would work for me.  Well maybe your criminogenic factors are not the same as the people you’re actually dealing with.  So it might work for you, we’ve proven that it doesn’t work for this population that we have been locking up, so let’s use what works for them.  One of the things that 463, this bill did, it codified a way to return some of the money that’s saved back into the reentry systems, and into our local jails and counties.  Kentucky also has a fairly unique, when I say fairly unique, it’s just us and Louisiana, where one third of my felon population resides in our county jails.  So if we don’t find a way to enhance the programs and what’s going on in those county jails, we also miss an opportunity to cut this recidivism rate, and thereby not take the fullest advantage of our public safety dollars.  So 25% of the projected savings from one of our efforts, and please remind me, please ask me about the mandatory supervision provision in this bill, which I think is the key.

Len Sipes:  Well, go ahead and say that, but we only have about 30 seconds left, so we have to wrap up soon.

Michael Brown:  Well, in wrapping up, then, I’d say one of the key parts of the bill is, we recognized that the early part of failure happens in those 6-9 months, so we’re going to put in a program where the last 6 months of an individual’s sentence are now under mandatory supervision with probation and parole.

Len Sipes:  There you go.

Michael Brown:  We’re very excited about that.

Len Sipes:  Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been talking to Secretary Michael Brown, who has just focused, refocused an entire criminal justice system focusing on high risk offenders, being sure that they’re incarcerated, and taking some chances, and actually doing, getting some great results in terms of a 10-year low in his recidivism rate for everybody else.  He’s saved the state and the collective wisdom has saved the state literally, millions of dollars, so Secretary Michael Brown, we congratulate you on these successes.  Again, if you want to take a look at the website for the state of Kentucky, it’s www.justice.ky.gov.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  I want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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