Friday, May 18, 2007

Social workers could ease jail crunch



The Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) will submit a 2008 budget proposal which includes money to put a social worker in each of its 30 state offices, including Pikeville, hoping to address the revolving door of the justice system by getting more than half of their clients out of jail and into treatment.

Approximately 68 percent of DPA clients suffer from substance dependency and 58 percent are mentally ill, said DPA Commissioner Ernie Lewis, asserting DPA is concerned with lack of treatment options in overcrowded local jails, including the Big Sandy Regional Detention Center (BSRDC).

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) shows the BSRDC, which is located in Paintsville and houses inmates from Johnson, Martin, Magoffin and Lawrence counties, held 181 inmates in a 110-bed facility last year.

DPA Public Information Officer Dawn Jenkins said Friday there were 200 in a 134-bed capacity - increased by a change in space requirements for each inmate by state law due to statewide overcrowding in jails - and one-third were sleeping on the floor.

In a 2006 visit to Pike County Jail, a University of Kentucky researcher found 236 inmates in a 142-bed facility - 89 of whom were state inmates - and one-half were on the floor, according to a special report the DPA called "Realizing justice during difficult times."

Incarceration rates in Kentucky are skyrocketing, says the DPA, with public defenders caseloads growing for the seventh consecutive year.

Over 300 salaried public defenders represented 140,000 cases last year, Lewis said, which was a 4.3 percent growth and the highest number of cases in DPA history.

The Paintsville office, which serves Johnson, Lawrence, Martin, and Magoffin counties, had 1,600 cases for four attorneys.

The problem in Eastern Kentucky has been complicated with the appearance of federally-funded programs like Operation UNITE, which makes drug-related arrests and offers some assistance to prosecution, but not to defense.

The problem prompted the DPA to hold public forums in 2005 out of concern for ineffective counsel and led to assistance from the 2006 General Assembly, decreasing the number of new cases opened per attorney.

The DPA received funding during the last legislative session to hire 36 more attorneys statewide, Lewis said, adding the goal is to get the caseload down to 400 per lawyer, which is still above the national average.

The 2006 General Assembly also funded the Social Worker Pilot Project, putting a social worker in the public defender's offices in Morehead, Owensboro, and Covington, and will place a fourth one in Bowling Green in July.

"The focus is to work with persons with substance abuse, mental illness, or both and treat them so they don't come back into the justice system," said Jenkins, adding Lewis has been meeting and will meet with legislators, judges and defenders in all trial regions before the 2008 General Assembly to seek support for a social worker in all 30 offices across the state.

The goal is to address the root causes of criminal behavior such as chronic alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, and illiteracy, Jenkins reported

The project would cost about $1.2 million, Lewis said, asserting, "We think the state will actually save money."

"And better yet, save lives," said Public Defender Jay Barrett, who has been serving as trial division director for the DPA.

The DPA reported the Commonwealth saves $47.12 every day a Kentucky inmate is treated rather than jailed, and a program like the social work project resulted in $15 million in savings for Rhode Island.

Asserting the DPA does not have scientific evidence concerning the effectiveness of the Social Worker Pilot Project yet, as researchers at the University of Louisville are working on it, Jenkins said social workers are making referrals to whatever is available, similar to the way drug court works.

"We have to expand treatment," Lewis said, as only 20 percent of the 68 percent with substance abuse problems are getting treatment.

Many are sleeping on the floor while in withdrawal from drugs, a condition about which Lewis said, "You're not going to get better."

"The BSRDC facility is overcapacity most of the time and without mental health and substance abuse treatment," said Paintsville Public Defender Howe Baker. "Many of our clients will continue to return to the criminal justice system unless we can address their root problem."

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