Governor Beshear defends COVID commutations

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Posted at 5:49 PM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 17:49:14-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — In the early days of the pandemic, Kentucky's prisons were hit hard by the coronavirus. So, Governor Andy Beshear issued two rounds of commutations in April and August 2020 to prevent the virus from spreading in crowded prisons and jails.

1,704 state inmates, who were medically at-risk or were within six months of finishing their sentence for nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, were released, according to the Beshear administration.

But now, a report from the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts says nearly a third of those inmates have been charged with a new felony.

The issue caused a heated discussion during the September 24 Justice and Judiciary Budget Review Subcommittee meeting.

"This is not a small criticism," said Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican, who sits on the subcommittee.

Nemes was the one who requested the information from the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts.

In the report, it shows that on April 4, 2020, 1,161 inmates had their sentences commuted and 543 others were commuted on August 24, 2020.

The report shows that 380 inmates out of the first group and 173 of the second group have been charged with a felony since their release. That's a total of 553 inmates that have been charged with a subsequent felony as of August 2021.

In addition, 262 others have also been charged with a new misdemeanor. So, the report says 47.8% of the inmates released "have had at least one criminal case including at least a misdemeanor charge filed against them since release."

"My criticism and it's very harsh - and I think, perhaps not harsh enough - has nothing to do with the Department of Corrections. It goes directly to Governor Andy Beshear," said Nemes. "These decisions were improper. They were dangerous."

However, at the September 24th meeting, Robyn Bender, the general counsel for the Justice Cabinet, suggested the report may not paint an accurate picture.

She told lawmakers the recidivism rate - which is the tendency for convicts to re-offend - for the COVID-19 commutation recipients was lower than the typical average.

"The one-year recidivism rate generally is 20%. The data we've seen with these commutations is that the recidivism rate is actually lower than that 20%," said Bender.

"The recidivism rate is actually in the mid-30% of the people you guys have released," Nemes fired back.

"I believe the information from the AOC is actually the arrest data," responded Bender. "So, it's the numbers for people who were arrested, not individuals who were convicted, or have pled guilty, or are serving time."

Governor Andy Beshear also questioned the report but promised to investigate it.

"That report is very different than what we've seen in the past. We judge recidivism by convictions because there are people who are charged with things that are eventually dropped and/or pled down," said Beshear. "What we're going to do is a deep dive. We're going to check every single person that got a commutation. We're going to see if they were charged with anything during the period where they would've been incarcerated because remember, they only had six months. It's been 18 months."

"And I think when that comes out, it's going to show the recidivism rate of this group is actually lower than our average," added Beshear. "But listen, I'm willing to be responsible for the decisions we made."