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Jail Reforms Languish In Last Days Of Legislative Session

Kevin Bratcher holds papers at desk during committee meeting.
Legislative Research Commission
Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 3, a bill geared toward juvenile justice reform before the House Judiciary Committee.

Legislation designed to hold Kentucky’s jailers more accountable has achieved mixed results so far in this year’s General Assembly.

A bill that would require jailers who don’t have a jail to run to file quarterly progress reports with their county fiscal courts passed the Senate but is awaiting consideration in the House.

Legislators are set to reconvene in Frankfort for a day next week, concluding this year’s regular session. And Sen. Danny Carroll, who sponsored the bill, said he’s hopeful that the bill will pass.

“I think this accountability measure and the transparency of what this will bring should take care of the issues” raised by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting last year, said Carroll, a Republican from Paducah.

Local jails in 41 Kentucky counties have closed for budgetary or compliance reasons since the 1970s. All of those counties still have a jailer — a constitutionally required office in Kentucky — but many of the jailers don’t always have much to do, KyCIR reported. (Read " Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails")

No-jail jailers were paid salaries ranging from $20,000 to nearly $70,000, KyCIR found. Their salaries, plus those of their deputies, cost the state nearly $2 million per year. Carroll’s bill also would also require fiscal courts to outline no-jail jailers’ duties every year.

Jailer-accountability legislation that Carroll proposed last year in the wake of KyCIR’s reports passed the Senate but died in the House. That bill would have given fiscal courts some control over jailers’ salaries.

Carroll said he removed that element from his latest proposal because of concerns from jailers that fiscal courts would have power to negatively manipulate salaries of jailers elected from an opposing party.

The primary focus of both measures was making jailers answerable, Carroll said, and he thinks the current one “will accomplish what’s needed.”

A second measure, filed by Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, would create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s state and local correctional facilities. After the proposal was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, it never received so much as a hearing.

Wayne characterized the legislation as a “sunshine bill” whose intent was to remind officials “to be more vigilant in monitoring inmates.” But he said jailers reacted negatively and expressed concern that the review panels would be a liability rather than an aid.

Wayne said other corrections professionals have expressed support, however, and he hopes the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the bill later this year as a prelude to more progress in 2017.

“If they [jailers] are resistant, eventually that can be exposed,” Wayne said. “But that’s kind of a last resort; you don’t want to push someone and embarrass them publicly if you don’t have to.”

The Kentucky Jailers Association did not respond to a request for comment on Carroll’s and Wayne’s legislative proposals.

Wayne said the impetus for his legislation came from a series of stories last year by KyCIR 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 idea is that if you cast light on all of this information and get it before an objective panel, they can review the information and determine what is factual and what may be a cover-up, to be blunt about it,” Wayne said in explaining his proposal.

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

The KyCIR investigation found that not even the state Department of Corrections had a true, accurate and updated accounting of who was dying in Kentucky’s jails, or why.

The need to act was further heightened, Wayne said, when 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died on Jan. 11 in a state-run juvenile-detention facility in Hardin County. Her death eventually was determined to be the result of natural causes, but Wayne said it is “just more evidence there that we need to be monitoring the situation.”

A third legislative initiative, by state Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville, also could result in hearings later this year. Yonts said he wants to explore the privatization of basic services, including health care, in jails and prisons.

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

This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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