Kentucky Writes a New Story

  • September 01, 2014
  • by Peter Perl

How Pew helped leaders in the Bluegrass State find agreement on divisive issues.

With Pew’s help, Kentucky lawmakers found agreement on divisive issues through research-based evidence that pointed to solid solutions. From controlling prison costs to rescuing its pension fund, the Bluegrass State has become a laboratory of ideas—and a story of accomplishment. Illustration by Matthew Hollister.

In his 38 years as a public defender in Kentucky, Edward Monahan observed with growing alarm—and then anger—the irrationality of a juvenile justice system that incarcerated tens of thousands of young people for offenses that wouldn’t even be crimes if committed by an adult: running away from home, alcohol or tobacco use, chronic truancy, persistent tardiness, or disobeying a judge’s order to return to school and do their homework.

Children as young as 10 or 11 were removed from their homes for these “status offenses” and locked up in detention facilities, sometimes housed with violent youth.  “This is morally inappropriate, morally indefensible,” says Monahan, who is now Kentucky’s chief public defender, supervising a staff of 335 lawyers in 120 counties.  “These were almost 100 per cent social problems that are just not criminal-justice problems.”   For years, Kentucky consistently ranked first or second among all states for what former Juvenile Justice Commissioner Hasan Davis called the “criminalizing” of children’s behavior.

These issues are very, very complex and they lent themselves to a number of political landmines along the way. So it was invaluable for Kentucky to have an outside, independent expert with the reputation of Pew to come in and work with us. Governor Steven L. Beshear

This system cost Kentucky a fortune: each bed in a secure facility costs taxpayers more than $87,000 a year, according to state legislators, who noted that jailing a child for a single year could pay the same child’s tuition for all four years at some of the state’s best universities—with $40,000 left over.

But thanks in large part to an innovative partnership with Pew’s public safety performance project, Kentucky lawmakers in 2014 approved a comprehensive overhaul that is projected to reduce the out-of-home population at the Department of Juvenile Justice by more than one-third, saving the state as much as $24 million in the next five years. Beyond that, the new law sets up an evidence-based diversion process that will keep thousands of other nonviolent juvenile offenders out of the criminal justice system altogether, while limiting the lengths of stay and supervision for lesser offenses, and reinvesting the new law’s savings into other evidenced-based alternatives to out-of-home placement. All this, while making sure that public safety remains paramount as the new system evolves.

The juvenile justice reform marks the latest of four significant policy changes in the last four years in Kentucky which Pew has collaborated on, helping to make the state’s government more effective and efficient. Since 2011, Pew has provided research, analysis, and technical assistance that helped the state adopt sweeping changes not only for improving treatment of juveniles in Kentucky, but for strategically reducing the exploding cost and population of the adult prison system, while also reducing recidivism; stabilizing the deeply troubled public employee pension system; and strengthening the state’s family support and coaching program, often known as “home visiting,” for vulnerable new and expectant mothers and their children. 

Pew has launched more projects in Kentucky than in any other state, largely because the topics of deepest concern to its Legislature coincided with those public policy problems that Pew had been actively studying.  And if it seems that all roads are leading to the state capitol in Frankfort, there’s nobody happier about it than Governor Steven L. Beshear.  The second-term Democrat says the depth and breadth of Pew’s research, its familiarity with best practices throughout state governments around the country, and its data-driven and non-partisan transparency about the potential effects of government policies have made all the difference for Kentucky.

“These issues are very, very complex and they lent themselves to a number of political landmines along the way. So it was invaluable for Kentucky to have an outside, independent expert with the reputation of Pew to come in and work with us,” Gov. Beshear says.  “They brought a sense of non-partisanship and even-handedness on the issues that helped all of us raise the discussion to the policy level and avoid arguing at the political level.”

Pew’s involvement made all the difference, from literally thousands of hours of their research and technical assistance to their ability to draw from their experience in other states.  Representative John Tilley

Kentucky is neither a red state nor blue: the House of Representatives has long been controlled by Democrats, the Senate by Republicans. The governor is a Democrat; both U.S. Senators are Republican.  If this decidedly purple hue doesn’t make successful governing difficult enough, the Legislature meets for only 30 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days during even-numbered years—when its main task is to pass a biennial budget.  Not surprisingly, most major legislation barely inches forward, often getting pushed off to a subsequent year, when it’s studied by a committee and then pushed off again.

“For a decade, we formed task forces, but we never even nibbled at the problem; we just kicked the can down the road,” says Democratic Representative John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who played a key role in the 2014 juvenile legislation as well as the 2011 passage of the Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act, which was aimed at reducing adult corrections costs and recidivism. “Pew’s involvement made all the difference, from literally thousands of hours of their research and technical assistance to their ability to draw from their experience in other states.”

Republicans and Democrats agree that what ultimately led to success in juvenile and adult corrections, state pensions, and home visiting was bipartisanship. While Pew did not create a bipartisan atmosphere in Frankfort, it gets nearly universal praise for nurturing the bipartisan yearnings of well-meaning lawmakers by providing them reliable, convincing, and objective information in timely and large quantities.

“Pew just had a lot of firepower. And it was firepower we could not have mustered on our own,” if the state tried to do it, Rep. Tilley says.

Pew already was a well-known institution to many veteran legislative leaders who had attended numerous Pew-sponsored government conferences over the years.  Several had previous relationships with Pew, such as Juvenile Commissioner Davis, a former youth-violence prevention worker in Lexington who received a “civic entrepreneur” fellowship from Pew in 1998 and became a strong supporter of its work.

But what really put Pew on Kentucky’s radar was the 2009 study, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, a state-by-state analysis of the nation’s corrections population of 7.3 million. Kentucky officials had grappled long and unsuccessfully with adult prison reform, and say they were finally shocked into action by the Pew report, which pointed out, to the dismay of Kentuckians, that the Bluegrass State had the most dramatic growth in prison population of all 50 states.

This pattern of state governments studying and restudying issues before working directly with Pew is quite common, says Alexis Schuler, Pew’s senior director for state assistance projects. She says that the initial success on the Kentucky prison project built Frankfort’s trust in Pew’s research approach, leading to collaboration on the other projects. “It’s all in service of getting good, evidence-based policy change enacted into law,” Schuler says, which means that Pew and its legislative allies have to tailor their approach in each state, on each issue, to determine what would work in each political and social environment. 

What unites all of Pew’s efforts is that they are driven by voluminous data that yields evidence of what works. In the states, that means pinpointing what policymakers can do more effectively and more economically for taxpayers and for the citizens served by the programs. Pew also provides technical assistance in development of policy proposals and also assists with communications and legislative strategy.

Jack Brammer, a government reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader who has covered Kentucky and the State House for 36 years, divides the Legislature’s effectiveness on corrections issues into two eras: “pre-Pew” and afterwards. Initially, he says, “legislators just did not have the information and knowledge of what other states were doing…. Then Pew comes in and they get ready access, and it seems to speed up the process.” Juvenile justice reform was stalled repeatedly, but this time, “I can’t say whether Kentucky would have passed this without Pew, but I know that Pew definitely made it easier.”

While juvenile justice was its most recent success story in Kentucky, Pew’s public safety performance project, launched nearly a decade ago, has helped improve corrections laws in many states, including Texas, which has one of the nation’s largest prison systems, using an approach that seeks to reframe the public debate, taking it beyond liberal vs. conservative, or soft on crime vs. tough on crime; the goal, instead, is to be smart on crime. In Kentucky, this meant focusing on public safety and on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of government, a particular concern in one of the nation’s poorest states.

J. Michael Brown, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, says the state had always prided itself on vigorously “fighting the war on drugs and being tough on crime,” without fully examining the costly consequences. When Gov. Beshear, shortly after being elected in 2007, asked Brown to lead a task force on drugs and the penal code, Kentuckians weren’t aware of the devastating impact of recidivism. Roughly 50 percent of released prisoners committed new crimes or violated their parole, returning them to prison and driving the annual prison budget beyond $400 million, according to state estimates, growing at a faster rate than every state function except Medicaid.

Pew staff, having highlighted the state’s particularly severe problems in its 2009 corrections report, reached out to state officials with an offer of help. On June 3, 2010, the deal was sealed with a formal letter from Kentucky’s governor, chief justice, senate president, and house speaker asking for Pew’s assistance and committing to reinvesting some of the expected savings from reforms into effective, community-based programs. Pew seeks those commitments before agreeing to work in a state.

After that, as many as a dozen of the institution’s policy experts, researchers, and consultants launched what would become a nine-month effort assisting lawmakers in Frankfort, says Adam Gelb who directs the public safety performance project.

Pew documented the cost of a system and key drivers of the prison population. One of the most glaring problems was that more than 4,000 prisoners “maxed out” their prison terms each year and were released, with no probation or parole supervision, leaving them ill-equipped for returning to the outside world. “At the end of the day, we’d just open the door, send them on their way, and say ‘Good luck,” Brown says.

After months of task force proceedings, public hearings, and legislative maneuvering, Kentucky lawmakers had grappled with numerous aspects of prison costs and human outcomes, and the resulting Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of  96 to 1 in the House. 

One key provision was the concept of “mandatory reentry supervision,” a program under which inmates are either released to supervision and counseling six months before their sentences expire, or are released with a requirement to serve an additional year under supervision of probation and parole officers.

The result has been “an unassailable success,” says Brown.  Between January 2012 and May 2014, more than 8,800 inmates entered the mandatory reentry supervision program, and their rate of committing new offenses declined by 30 percent.  In all, he says, “that means we have saved more than one million ‘incarceration-days’ and saved $33,193,746.92.” Brown pauses. “Yes, you heard it right: 33 million, 193 thousand, 746 dollars, and 92 cents. We know this down to the penny.” And Kentucky officials predict that when all the provisions of the new law are fully operating, the savings will be $422 million over the next decade.

The law requires that each year, a percentage of the savings must be reinvested, which so far has enabled the hiring of 150 new staff to work with offenders—using proven practices highlighted by Pew that reduce recidivism, such as substance abuse and mental health programs. In addition to reducing prison time for low-risk, non-violent offenders, the law requires that by 2016, Kentucky must assure that 75 percent of spending on supervision and intervention goes to programs empirically demonstrated to reduce recidivism.

One key reason the legislation was initially well-received was that Pew never lost sight of the public safety message for the public, lawmakers say. While reducing the prison population can dovetail with goals often associated with political liberals, such as social justice and racial equality, the adult corrections legislation was also supported by Right on Crime, a campaign featuring prominent conservatives Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, Grover Norquist, and Edwin Meese III. Pew has collaborated with Right on Crime in other states as well, helping raise awareness of support for reforms based on conservative principles of limited government and fiscal discipline.

The adult corrections legislation earned a top “transformational” rating from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, a rare distinction. Even more rare is that the chamber awarded the same rating the following year to another significant policy change Pew helped state policymakers achieve.

Like prisons, the public pension system in Kentucky was in crisis—a crisis in the shadows, with few people understanding its severity. And as with prisons, it took Pew’s unearthing of impossible-to-ignore data to finally spur the state to action. Pew had issued reports in 2007 and 2010 targeting the time-bomb of debt that states had taken on—not just billions of dollars, but trillions. Kentucky, like many states, had a history of increasing its workers’ benefits without fully funding them, and had taken a huge loss in its investments following the 2008 recession.

Kentucky’s pension plan had become one of the worst-funded in the country, covering only 55 percent of its total liabilities, and reaching by 2012 a projected shortfall of $23.6 billion—more than twice what the state collects annually in taxes. That year, Pew launched a nationwide pension-reform effort, and Kentucky, which formed a pension task force, became one of Pew’s first projects, conducted in a partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

We really tried to focus the debate away from placing blame on how Kentucky got there. It’s good to know why it happened, but it doesn’t help you move forward,” says David Draine, Pew’s senior researcher on state fiscal issues. And Pew found that its success with corrections reform in the state helped pave the way for its work on pensions.  Pew’s team helped with complex technical and actuarial work and, Draine says, “made ourselves accessible to all the stakeholders: the task force, labor, retirees, and the business community.”

The long-standing pension gridlock hinged on whether to change the existing “defined benefit” plan, favored by Democrats, which guaranteed workers a specific income, versus the Republican-backed “defined contribution” obligating the state to pay a fixed sum—but giving workers no fixed payout amount, because of investment risk. Complicating matters, neither political party wanted to cut benefits that were already promised to current workers and retirees.

 I thought we would end up in the usual partisan impasse" but the Pew team “brought a level of seriousness, credibility and nonpartisanship…and they never tried to push a specific agenda. Republican Senator Damon Thayer

Drawing on knowledge of other states’ plans and which of them had been effective, Pew outlined a choice of “hybrid” options that would guarantee benefits—but not as generously as before, and with workers and the state sharing in the risk of potential future investment losses.

I thought we would end up in the usual partisan impasse that we’d had for years,” says Republican Senator Damon Thayer. “Things were never moving.” He credited Gov. Beshear for reaching out to Republicans, but says the Pew team provided the crucial impetus. They “brought a level of seriousness, credibility and nonpartisanship…and they never tried to push a specific agenda.” Proposed compromises passed the state task force by an 11-to-1 margin, which helped give Sen. Thayer and his House counterpart, Democratic Representative Mike Cherry, the opportunity to enthusiastically pitch the package to their colleagues.

The full Legislature was receptive and enacted multiple reforms, among them mandating no cost-of-living increases unless matched by new funding, and committing the state to full funding of the entire pension system.  It also diverted $100 million from road construction to the pension system. Passed overwhelmingly on the final day of the 2013 Legislature, the new law prompted House Speaker Greg Stumbo to call it one of the greatest achievements in his 29-year tenure.

Instead of controversy and gridlock that had bound up corrections and pension reform in the past, Pew’s home-visiting initiative in Kentucky was confronted with a different kind of challenge: how to make meaningful improvements in a program that virtually everyone agreed was vital to thousands of vulnerable children and was already running very well and cost-effectively.

Kentucky’s family support and coaching program—called Health Access Nurturing Development Services (HANDS)—started in 2000 and is regarded as one of the best of its kind in the country, according to Karen Kavanaugh, director of Pew’s home visiting campaign. HANDS operates in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and is open to all first-time parents deemed at risk. Trained providers, linked to county health departments, work with nurses and parent educators to meet diverse family needs regarding health, substance abuse, and a range of social services.

About 38 percent of all first-time Kentucky parents have had contact with HANDS, which makes about 160,000 home visits per year to some 10,600 families. And most important for taxpayers, HANDS says that for every dollar it spends on aiding infants and families, the state saves about $2 by substantially reducing the number of low birth-weight infants, emergency room visits, child abuse and neglect cases and more. HANDS also claims to have raised academic performance, advanced employment of mothers, and increased the number of fathers moving back into households. 

Kavanaugh says Pew’s primary goal was to help Kentucky enact “accountability legislation” that would codify the high standards and measures of success shown by HANDS and elevate awareness of the program in the Legislature. In contrast to Pre-K, a well-known early childhood service which Pew helped Kentucky strengthen and expand in 2010, home visiting does not often share the same profile.

The law Kentucky stakeholders developed with Pew’s assistance would mandate that the state only fund future home-visiting programs that met the standards of HANDS and also complemented rather than duplicated existing services.

To pursue this goal, Pew formed a partnership with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a prominent Kentucky nonprofit, nonpartisan volunteer organization that has been working effectively on children’s issues for more than 25 years.

Because of public concern about spending tax dollars wisely, the committee saw the accountability legislation as bolstering the program’s future.  “Pew strategies have been very, very helpful,” says Cindy Heine, Prichard’s associate executive director. She credits Pew with arranging for various interest groups, including law enforcement, to speak in favor of HANDS.

Pew would like to expand the scope and funding of HANDS and is working towards that end, Kavanaugh says. But she adds that she is happy with the new legislation and the fact that in a difficult budget year, HANDS avoided cuts suffered by other programs because the legislative campaign elevated its importance and impact among lawmakers.

In all four projects—adult corrections reform, juvenile justice improvements, pension changes, and the home-visiting program—Pew has pledged to continue its services by helping Kentucky policymakers assess the success of each new law. This commitment is no surprise to Diana Taylor, a Frankfort-based communications consultant who worked with Pew staff on the four bills. “Pew didn’t just make recommendations and go home. They stayed and worked, and it’s tough work.”

Read more about how Pew’s evidence-based research has helped Kentucky develop policies for cutting corrections and juvenile justice costs and recidivism, reducing the state’s unfunded pension liabilities, and supporting an innovative home visiting program.