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Trouble Behind Bars is a months-long investigation into Kentucky jail deaths. We found preventable deaths that provoked little to no follow-up, as well as failures at all levels of government. Who is dying in your local county jail? Not even the state Department of Corrections has a true, accurate and updated accounting.

What Did, Didn't Make It Through This Legislative Session

The Senate floor in Kentucky's capitol.
Alix Mattingly

Countless issues of public interest and importance received attention during the state’s latest legislative session, which wrapped up with a flurry of activity late Thursday night.

Several of those matters have been a focus of Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting coverage in recent years. Here’s an update on what became law and what didn’t pass through the legislature.

No-Jail Jailers

Gov. Matt Bevin signed a bill designed to hold Kentucky’s no-jail jailers accountable for their work. Jailers in the 41 counties without an operating local jail now will be required to document what they do, in reports to their fiscal courts.

The bill, following two unsuccessful legislative attempts, was spurred by a 2015 investigation by KyCIR, which revealed that more than a third of the state’s 120 elected jailers didn’t actually have jails to run. The story found that jailers were unaccountable and the system was rife with waste and nepotism. (Read " Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails")

State Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican who pushed for the new law, said it will provide “transparency and accountability, to ensure that the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth out of those jailers who are not operating jails.”

Medical Review Panels

With solid Republican majorities in the House and Senate, lawmakers finally succeeded in revising the medical malpractice system by creating panels of medical providers to review claims of error or neglect before cases go to court.

Bevin signed the bill into law on March 16. Long a priority of the GOP, several similar proposals had been rebuffed in previous years.

Supporters of the legislation argued that the three-member panels would help weed out meritless malpractice lawsuits that drive up the cost of malpractice insurance rates for the state's health care industry. Opponents countered that the panels would create unconstitutional barriers that delay plaintiffs' access to courts, and likely will result in litigation seeking to overturn it.

We previously examined the long-term care industry’s push for medical review panels, the big money behind it, and the man who has been at the center of the fight, Terry Forcht. (Read: " A Powerful Nursing Home Owner and a Push For Medical Review Panels")

Constable Powers

Efforts to rein in the state’s constables were not successful.

Kentucky is one of just 17 states that elect constables. Because the office is enshrined in the state constitution, constables are responsible to no one except a small slice of a county’s voters every four years. And many voters don’t know what constables do. (Read "Kentucky Constables: Untrained And Unaccountable")

A half-dozen legislative attempts in recent years to amend the state constitution and give counties the option of eliminating constables have gone nowhere. The latest effort, sponsored by State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger in Northern Kentucky, and others, never made it out of a House committee.

Koenig said the legislature didn’t consider any constitutional amendments this session, and that he’s been promised the opportunity to discuss the bill at a committee hearing before the legislature reconvenes next year.

Reviews Of In-Custody Deaths

Another unsuccessful effort involved a bill filed by Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, seeking to create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s state and local correctional facilities. It too never received a hearing in the House.

Wayne’s proposal followed a series of stories by KyCIR in 2015 detailing abuses in some of the state’s jails, including lax oversight by staff, shortcomings in health care provided by for-profit companies and lax monitoring by the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. (Read the “ Trouble Behind Bars” series)

The panel envisioned by Wayne also would be responsible for reviewing deaths and near-fatalities in youth detention centers and private corrections facilities that contract with the state.

The need for such a panel was further heightened, according to Wayne, when 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died in January 2016 in a state-run juvenile-detention facility in Hardin County. We extensively covered her death and the aftermath.

Although lengthy investigations ultimately determined that Gynnya died of natural causes, Wayne said her death underlined the need for external monitoring.

R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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