FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Lawmakers in Kentucky are rethinking the state's recent return to private prisons at a time when Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's administration warns the state is about a year away from running out of space to hold inmates.
Kentucky closed its last private prison in 2013 after years of problems, including allegations of sexual abuse and a prison riot in 2004. The decision was made easier by criminal justice reforms that caused the state's prison population to dip below 20,000.
But in November, with a prison population topping more than 24,600, state officials reluctantly signed a contract with Tennessee-based CoreCivic to house about 800 inmates at the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Kentucky. Justice Secretary John Tilley called it a short-term solution.
A better fix, he said, would be to update the state's criminal code to lock up fewer people convicted of nonviolent crimes. He warned the state's prison system would likely run out of space by May of next year without changes.
Acting House Speaker David Osborne told reporters this week there is "no possibility" lawmakers would change the state's criminal code. Instead, the House approved a budget that would give the state permission to open up to two other private prisons, if needed.
But the state Senate removed that permission. Instead, they'd like to see more inmates housed at county jails because it's cheaper. The state pays just under $58 per day to house an inmate in a private prison, but just $31.34 per day to hold an inmate in a local jail.
Local jails are overcrowded, too, at a combined 119 percent of capacity. But at least six counties have opened or plan to open new jails or expansions of existing jails in the next few years. Last April, state officials said they expected the additions to increase capacity by more than 1,700 beds.
"Utilizing private prisons dramatically increases the cost," said Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate's budget committee. "We need to utilize all the slots available to us first."
It was one of multiple issues state lawmakers were discussing Friday as negotiations began between House and Senate leaders over how to spend more than $70 billion of state and federal tax dollars over the next two years. Lawmakers hope to come up with an agreement on the state spending plan by early next week. If they don't, they could lose their ability to override any vetoes from the governor.
Brad Boyd, president of the Kentucky Jailers' Association, said space at county jails is tight but the state had several options to alleviate that problem. He noted the state has 495 empty beds at various restrictive custody centers, which house low-level inmates that often work in the community. Boyd said jails can only house inmates classified as low-risk. The state has about 2,900 inmates that have not been classified yet and are ineligible for the restrictive custody centers.
"(The Senate) may be correct that there are enough beds," acting House Speaker David Osborne told reporters earlier this week. "If they've got information that shows that the correction system can in fact handle that, then I think it's something that we would look at."
Boyd says one solution to the overcrowding problem is to increase how much the state pays local jails to house inmates as an incentive for them to build more capacity. The Kentucky Jailers' Association asked for a $1 increase per inmate this year, which would be about $4 million.
"I'm just simply not for privatization. Incarcerating individuals is not something you should be privatizing, period," Boyd said.