Legislation Addresses Unique Needs of Female Inmates

2/28/18 2:01 PM

A quarter of the women incarcerated in Kentucky are either pregnant or have a child younger than one year of age. That presents a unique set of challenges for those mothers as well as for law enforcement and criminal justice officials.

Senate Bill 133 seeks to address those issues with a series of criminal justice reforms targeting female inmates. KET’s Renee Shaw discussed the legislation with Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network.

Kentucky is rapidly running out of space to house its growing prison population. Harris says part of the problem is that the criminal justice system generally fails to distinguish between truly bad actors who should be incarcerated and people who could be diverted into treatment for an underlying addiction or mental health problem.

As the overall prison population grows, the state also faces a dramatic increase in female inmates. Harris says the number of women in state prisons grew by 14 percent last year. That’s compared to a 5 percent increase in the male population. Kentucky now has the second highest female incarceration rate in the country.

Harris says SB 133 will focus state court and prison officials on better addressing the needs of female offenders.

“It’s just a good bill that does the right thing for people,” she says says. “It prioritizes the health of women and their babies over cost.”

Harris is a native of Elizabethtown and a former attorney at the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. She also served as counsel and finance chair for the Republican Party of Kentucky, and counsel for the state Senate.

The interview was recorded on Feb. 26, 2018.