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Criminal Justice

SB200 Rebuttal

SB200 Rebuttal

I am writing in response to the story “WDRB Investigation: New KY law contributes to rise in Louisville juvenile crime,” done by Mr. Gil Corsey. I was the sponsor of Senate Bill 200, a major 2014 juvenile justice reform law aimed at holding youth accountable, while getting youth and their families the services and programming they need to get back on track. I serve as chair of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council monitoring its implementation. Since passage, we’ve meticulously reviewed data from across the juvenile justice system, which show better outcomes for youth and families statewide.

I took issue with a number of the points Mr. Corsey made in this story. In Jefferson County, 42% of youth who were put on diversion in CY 2016 had committed a status offense. Status offenses are behaviors that many kids need to be steered away from at one point in their youth, like truancy or tobacco possession, but they are not considered crimes for adults. The increase in diversion cases in Jefferson County is driven primarily by these status offense cases, not crimes. 

This is exactly what we want to see. Research is clear that for low-level youth, such as those committing status offenses, pulling them deeper into the system can actually produce the opposite of the desired outcome. The youth’s behavior often gets worse, not better. Instead of fixing the problem, the government ends up pulling the youth away from their family and isolating them more.

I also want to point out a problem with how Mr. Corsey categorized “serious violent offenses” in his recidivism definition. In that definition he included four different types of assault in the 4th degree, a misdemeanor crime that results in either no visible injury or only minor injury. These crimes are not included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting category of violent offenses, and as a former prosecutor I personally do not believe they should be considered “serious, violent offenses” in the same category as crimes like robbery, rape and murder.

This recidivism definition is important to clarify because more than one-third of diverted youth who Mr. Corsey categorized as serious, violent re-offenders were charged with some form of assault in the 4th degree as their subsequent offense. If you exclude those youth from his recidivism definition, less than 4% of youth who were diverted in CY 2016 have subsequently committed a serious, violent offense. This is an extremely low recidivism rate.

I believe these data are important to clarify because examining data related to Senate Bill 200 implementation is a core component of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council’s responsibility. We have defined performance measures to routinely track the implementation of the legislation, and we regularly receive data reports from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and other relevant agencies charged with policy implementation. 

In examining statewide data, we have seen many positive results from Senate Bill 200 implementation. Statewide, public offense complaints (offenses that would be considered crimes if committed by an adult) have continued to decline in the years following the reforms. While we have seen an increase in diversions, we have also seen that more than 90% of youth successfully complete diversion and are kept out of the court system, and the vast majority of youth who successfully complete diversion do not reoffend. When youth are successful in diversion, it frees up time for the juvenile court to handle more serious cases and for judges to use their resources on the cases that truly pose a risk to public safety.

Finally, I want to make a critical point about Senate Bill 200: this legislation did not change any statute related to how the most serious crimes can be handled in juvenile court, or impact any juveniles who commit such serious offenses that they end up being sent to criminal court. Senate Bill 200 was designed to curb unnecessary, ineffective and costly detention for the lowest level offenders, and provide more effective community-based programs to address problem behavior. This allows the state to prioritize  scarce resources in court and in the Department of Juvenile Justice to better address the needs of youth who commit serious offenses and have significant prior history. This can improve public safety and improve outcomes for youth, which should be the ultimate purpose of Kentucky’s juvenile justice system.

Sen. Westerfield Named Co-Chair

Sen. Westerfield Named Co-Chair

Earlier this year, the National Conference of State Legislatures named me, along with a colleague from the Nebraska Senate, as Co-Chair of a newly formed Juvenile Justice Principles Working Group.  My Co-Chair and I have been working with NCSL staff over the last few months to prepare for the group's upcoming meetings this year.  We aim to produce a report, or white paper of sorts, to guide states looking at reforming their juvenile justice systems.  Here's my release about the news:

For Immediate Release
Contact: John Cox


FRANKFORT, Ky. (June 5, 2017) – State Senator Whitney Westerfield was recently appointed as co-chairman to the newly-established Juvenile Justice Principles Working Group, a subset of the National Conference of State Legislature’s (NCSL) Law, Criminal Justice And Public Safety Committee.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
— Frederick Douglass

According to NCSL, the purpose of the juvenile justice work group is to discuss and develop a set of principles of effective juvenile justice state policy that NCSL will publish as a report to guide policy review and reform in the states. The report is intended to identify policy-making strategies that are rooted in research, reflect bipartisan/nonpartisan values, and help states invest in proven methods to put justice-involved youth back on the right track, while also keeping communities safe.  The principles and report will be an important tool that state lawmakers can apply both now and well into the future.

Senator Westerfield, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of both the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council and Governor Matt Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, thanked NCSL for the appointment. “Our work in the juvenile justice system here in Kentucky has set a national standard, giving a template for several other states to follow, yet we still have so much to do to improve outcomes for youth and improve public safety,” said Senator Westerfield. “I thank NCSL for this opportunity and I look forward to bringing my experience to the table, working with many dedicated men and women from across the United States to shape policy that will help our children in Kentucky and across the country.”

The Juvenile Justice Principles Working Group’s first meeting is June 6-8. Senator Westerfield championed Kentucky's comprehensive juvenile justice reform in 2014, and the Commonwealth's 2017 criminal justice reform law, Senate Bill 120, and will be presiding at two of the conference’s meetings. Those meetings will focus on juvenile justice research and data and juvenile justice reform, both for which Senator Westerfield has been an advocate in Kentucky.

The National Conference of State Legislatures was established in 1975 and is a bipartisan, non-governmental organization dedicated to the success of state legislatures. NCSL has three main objectives: improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures; promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures; and ensure state legislatures have a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.


CJPAC Update

CJPAC Update

As was announced in this space a couple of months ago the Bevin administration and legislative leaders from both parties and chambers were joined to create the Governor's Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Committee.  Since the creation of "CJPAC" we've heard a steady stream of data and policy testimony to provide legislative food for thought as we look ahead to the 2017 session.

Last month the CJPAC divided into several subgroups to study specific issues in greater detail:

  • Penal Code
  • Reentry
  • Recidivism Reduction
  • Probation and Parole reforms
  • Drug Policy
  • Prevention
  • Jail reform

I've been assigned to the Penal Code group, tasked with examining any changes to the entire criminal code.  In case you wanted to take a look at every single criminal offense on the books (in the penal code and outside of it) I hope you have some free time on your hands.

Our small group has met once by phone and once in person so far, and we have another meeting scheduled in just under two weeks when we'll discuss continued changes to some of the biggest pain points in the criminal code.  Should some offenses be reclassified to carry more serious penalties?  Lower penalties?  Where are the inconsistencies (possession of child porn carries the same penalty as possession a stolen license plate, for example)?

Last month during the Judiciary committee meeting we heard from prosecutors about the need to eliminate the "violent offense" label in the code.  Especially for everyone outside the court system the suggestion that some crimes are deemed "violent" and others are not is frustrating.  It is also a bit of a misnomer.  There isn't actually a "violent offense" statute, but rather a handful of crimes that carry a "violent" level of parole eligibility.  For these few crimes a convicted individual must serve a full 85% of their imposed sentence before becoming merely eligible for parole.  You can find that statute and the list of applicable crimes right here if you're interested.  It's a short read.  But the bottom line is that there are a great many crimes that anyone of us would deem "violent" that aren't included in that statute.  There's a growing opinion (that I share) that we should remove that label.

We'll take a look at parole eligibility across a number of crimes.  Should the eligibility threshold move up; drop down; stay put?  We have crimes at 15%, 20%, 50% and 85% (50% is a relatively new group, containing a specific high-level theft, certain cases of heroin trafficking).

At the CJPAC meeting last week we heard from the Department of Corrections and from Pew Charitable Trusts (examining Kentucky's own DOC data) and we can identify a number of trends that demand further attention.  For example, the rate of women being incarcerated has increased 25% compared to only 5% for men since 2007.  Property offenses in prison admissions have climbed by nearly 50%.  Two-thirds of prison admissions are for violations of supervision conditions (probation & parole).  I strongly encourage you to take a look at the charts and takeaways in that data presentation.

Needless to say, no small task awaits us.

Bookmark this page or visit my Apple News channel to stay up to date on what's happening with the CJPAC and other legislation as we approach the 2017 session in January.  If you have some input or feedback please contact me here or here!

Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council

Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council

Yesterday, June 21, 2016, the Governor announced the formation of a group dedicated to studying Kentucky's criminal code and recommending legislation for the 2017 General Assembly to consider passing.  Yours truly, as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds a seat in this august group.  Ultimately, we should aim to improve public safety, and improve outcomes for victims, for those accused and for the taxpayers footing the bill.   I'm excited about the work ahead!

Below I've included the Governor's press release in its entirety.  At the bottom you can see the "CJPAC" membership.

Gov. Bevin Announces Kentucky-led Council on Criminal Justice Reform

Bipartisan council will undertake a comprehensive review of justice policy for reforms next year

FRANKFORT, Ky. (June 21, 2016) –– With prisons at capacity, overdose deaths on the rise, and families fractured by incarceration, Gov. Matt Bevin today announced plans to seek a smarter, compassionate, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in Kentucky.

Kentucky has achieved very important milestones in justice and public safety policy in dating violence protections, national model juvenile justice reform and annual efforts to combat the ever changing threat of substance abuse.
— Sen. Whitney Westerfield

Standing in the Capitol Rotunda with a broad coalition of lawmakers, advocates and policy leaders, Gov. Bevin introduced his newly-formed Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. The 23-member panel will seek expert advice & study data-driven evidence over the next six months and recommend reforms in the 2017 General Assembly for a smarter, stronger and fairer system of justice.

“From the very beginning, America has been a land of second chances. Even so, many in our criminal justice system are not given a path forward to become productive members of society after they have served their time,” said Gov. Bevin. “I believe in the importance of supporting basic human dignity. When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits. I am excited today to announce the formation of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. Their purpose is to carefully study and then suggest actionable policy solutions for improving our criminal justice system.”

Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley will lead the council, and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton will serve as Special Advisor to the committee and Liaison to the Governor.

"While we have made great strides, Kentucky can get smarter on crime while remaining tough on criminals,” Secretary Tilley said. "By using data-driven policy and clear evidence, we can cut re-offense rates, improve reentry, increase drug treatment and treat mental illness – all while maintaining, and even bettering public safety.”

Gov. Bevin formed the bipartisan council in response to a growing patchwork of statutes that now comprise much of the state’s penal code. This has resulted in a costly expansion of Kentucky’s criminal justice system with diminishing returns in public safety. 

However, Kentucky’s criminal code has remained largely untouched for decades, and is sorely in need of updates reflecting public policies that spend scarce taxpayer dollars wisely and improve public safety.
— Sen. Whitney Westerfield

The Kentucky legislature has enacted important reforms in recent years, including laws that increased substance abuse treatment in prisons, strengthened pretrial release policies, and modified sentences for certain drug offences. 

“Over each of the last few years Kentucky has achieved very important milestones in justice and public safety policy in dating violence protections, national model juvenile justice reform and annual efforts to combat the ever changing threat of substance abuse,” said Sen. Whitney Westerfield, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “However, Kentucky’s criminal code has remained largely untouched for decades, and is sorely in need of updates reflecting public policies that spend scarce taxpayer dollars wisely and improve public safety.” 

The need to address the cost of criminal justice is clear. Kentucky spent nearly half a billion dollars on corrections last year, consuming funds incarcerating individuals for non-violent crimes that could otherwise benefit classrooms and job training programs. Meanwhile, inmate populations at prisons and jails remain high, criminal sentences are often inconsistent and Kentucky is leading the nation in the number of children with an incarcerated parent.

“I am hopeful that we will treat this initiative for criminal justice reform as an opportunity to build upon the redemptive philosophy that we achieved with the passage of the felony expungement legislation that Rep. Darryl Owens sponsored for many years,” said Rep. Chris Harris, of Forest Hills. “We cannot continue to try to incarcerate our way out of the problems facing our society, many of which are rooted in addiction to controlled substances and mental health issues. Addressing these pervasive issues is the key to solving the problem of the revolving door of incarceration and allowing these folks to reenter society successfully and become contributing members of their communities.” 

Gov. Bevin said the bipartisan, Kentucky-led council will bring together people from across the Commonwealth – with a wide range of expertise – to look at the many complex issues that present challenges to the criminal justice system. 

“I am encouraged by the diverse community of stakeholders that criminal justice reform has brought to the table,” Labor Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey said. “As both an African-American and the Secretary of the Labor Cabinet, it is deeply personal to me that I help find ways to reduce recidivism and provide workforce re-entry opportunities for the thousands of Kentuckians who deserve a second chance.  While there are no quick fixes to complex problems like this one, I am looking forward to collaborating with my colleagues on this council to identify real solutions needed to address this critically important issue.”

For Russell Coleman, the issues hit home when he confronted them head on as an FBI special agent.

“As someone who has been privileged to serve in our law enforcement community, I was a natural skeptic of reform,” said Coleman, a western Kentucky native, who now practices law at Frost Brown Todd in Louisville. “But when the data and experience of conservative governors in other states indicate that well-crafted reforms actually make our families safer, we can’t afford not to work together in achieving those successes in our commonwealth.”

Members of the Council include:

  • Chairman John Tilley, Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet
  • Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee
  • Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Derrick Ramsey, Secretary of the Labor Cabinet
  • Sen. John Schickel, R-Union
  • Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville
  • Rep. Denny Butler, R-Louisville
  • Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills
  • Dr. Allen Brenzel, Department of Behavioral Health, Cabinet for Health and Family Services
  • Judge David A. Tapp, 28th Judicial Circuit Court, Division 1
  • Judge-Executive Tommy Turner, LaRue County
  • Amy Milliken, Warren County Attorney
  • Courtney Baxter, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Oldham, Henry, Trimble counties
  • Rick Sanders, Kentucky State Police Commissioner
  • Damon Preston, Deputy Public Advocate, Department of Public Advocacy
  • Russell Coleman, Spokesman for Kentucky Smart on Crime
  • Tom Jensen, Attorney, retired Judge and former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee
  • Anthony Smith, Executive Director of Cities United
  • Jason Woosley, Grayson County Jailer
  • Bob Russell, Retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church
  • Bishop William Medley, Diocese of Owensboro
  • Dave Adkisson, President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce
  • Justice Daniel J. Venters, Supreme Court of Kentucky, 3rd District