Steal $100,000 in a University of Kentucky ticket scam, as former UK basketball star Ed Davender did, and you could get eight years in prison.
Steal five times that much from Blue Grass Airport, as former Blue Grass Airport director Mike Gobb and three of his assistants did, and you could get no jail time at all.
Those recent cases left me scratching my head, and I wasn’t alone. No wonder people question the fairness of our judicial system and speculate that punishment is influenced by wealth, race, class, the skill of your attorney and the whims of your judge.
“We have completely lost the consistency that once existed in our sentencing system,” said Robert Lawson, a UK law professor who wrote much of the foundation for the state criminal code and has spent four decades studying crime and punishment in Kentucky.
“There’s a need for a complete and total overhaul,” Lawson said.
While we are at it, he said, we should rethink punishment for non-violent criminals to make it more effective and affordable.
Kentucky’s 1974 criminal code was designed to promote rehabilitation, because most offenders return to society sooner or later. But subsequent “get tough on crime” laws and public opinion have made the system inconsistent and often unfair, Lawson said.
The problem, he said, is that “we’ve forgotten the difference between the people we’re afraid of and those we’re mad at.”
In the court of public opinion, most people would say that Davender, Gobb and his assistants deserved jail time — perhaps many years in prison.
“The public is angry; they don’t want to see anybody go free unless it’s a relative,” Lawson said. “They put a lot of pressure on judges who have to run for office.”
That attitude helps explain why the United States, where the incarceration rate has almost quadrupled since 1980, locks up more people per capita than any other nation, and why Kentucky incarcerates more than almost any other state. It also helps explain why governments are going broke.
Everybody wants violent criminals — the people we’re afraid of — locked away so they can’t hurt us. But Lawson said his research has found that the vast majority of felons incarcerated in Kentucky are there for drug or property crimes that didn’t involve violence.
Kentucky’s crime rate since 1970 has risen about 3 percent. But the number of incarcerated felons has grown from fewer than 3,000 then to more than 21,000, and the state’s corrections budget has grown from $10 million to more than $450 million.
Those staggering figures have caused many groups, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, to call for reform. That’s because paying to lock up so many people leaves Kentucky too little money for education and other priorities.
But many prosecutors “scare the public,” and many politicians are afraid of being labeled “soft on crime,” Lawson said. Ratings-driven TV news is all crime all the time, even though Kentucky’s crime rate is relatively low. “There is enormous fear out there,” he said.
There also are human costs to excessive incarceration. If offenders are simply warehoused, and not rehabilitated, they come out worse than they went in. That’s especially true of the 7,000 felons now in overcrowded local jails that were not designed to house prisoners long-term. “We’re making them meaner than hell under the circumstances we’re having them live in,” he said.
Prison is appropriate punishment for some non-violent criminals, but sentences have grown excessively long. “One year is a lot of time in prison if people would go look at them,” said Lawson.
A more appropriate and cost-effective punishment for many non-violent criminals would be community service, hefty fines and home confinement. People like Gobb and Davender, who have useful skills and pose little public safety threat, could repay taxpayers with money, work and service rather than be locked away at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year.
Fines would be easier on affluent offenders than poor ones, but amounts could be adjusted to make them more equitable. Only Gobb’s punishment included community service, but Lawson said the 500 hours required of Gobb “doesn’t sound like enough to me for what he did.”
Kentucky’s criminal code needs an overhaul. And while we are at it, we must figure out ways for more non-violent criminals to pay their debt to society without costing us all a fortune.