BURGIN, Ky. (WKYT) - Something had to give. When a struggling economy forced Kentucky lawmakers to look for ways to save money, one of the biggest costs they found was corrections spending.
Some of their efforts at fiscal responsibility resulted in House Bill 463, which offered sweeping reforms to Kentucky's crime laws and how criminals are punished, but many on the front lines are asking whether the solution has been costlier than the problem.
Like most towns in America, Burgin, Kentucky doesn't have money to burn. City leaders struggle to do more with less, like Jim Caldwell, who isn't just the chief of the police department. He's the entire police department. "I always tell people I'm one of the top ten officers, and I've got a nine officer margin of error," Caldwell joked.
It isn't always easy. Burgin doesn't lack for crime, and Caldwell says sometimes the law itself is his biggest challenge. "Under the Kentucky penal code, wanton endangerment, trying to run over a policeman with your car isn't a violent offense," Caldwell explained recalling an incident he had with a suspect, "Well being the policeman he tried to run over, I got to say it felt a little violent to me."
That's why Caldwell and many in the law enforcement community say the passage of House Bill 463 has made their lives even harder.
"Just for the viewers, you know House Bill 463 did a major revision of our penal system," Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said in a recent interview on Kentucky Newsmakers. Beshear defended the reforms insisting that corrections spending was out of control when the law took effect back in February, 2011. "It is blowing our budget out the roof, and so we started taking a look at it," Beshear said.
Proponents of the legislation say House Bill 463 will eventually save hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing Kentucky's prison population by more than 3000 inmates over the next 10 years, but some on the front lines aren't so sure. When Kentucky lawmakers asked the Lexington Police Department to brief them on the law's impact, officers cited a rise in failures to appear in court for misdemeanor charges and corresponding costs among other new challenges.
What's more, across the region, police believe the criminals are adapting to the new rules as Chief Caldwell says he found at a drug roundup right after House Bill 463 became law. "Just about everybody we picked up was laughing," Caldwell said, "They said this falls under the new law doesn't it? This falls under the new law. They knew they weren't going to get any time out of it because it had just gone from a C felony, which carried five years, to a D felony that carried 65 days.
Cases in which thieves stole less than $500 led to difficult exchanges with victims confused why someone caught red-handed got to walk. "But he said, basically I can't do anything. We're going to give him a ticket, and I was like, what?" Alka Herald said back in July after police caught a suspect they say stole personal items from her husband's truck, "What do you mean you're giving him a ticket? You have him. We have him. He's right there. He's a big old dude. He's there. Take him to jail. You've got him in the car, but apparently you can't do that with this new House Bill 463.".
"It's in a transition period right now," Beshear conceded in the Kentucky Newsmakers interview, "and there's no question that you'll have somebody at some point who might otherwise be in prison that's not in prison and commits a crime, and of course then everybody gets upset, and I understand that. If it was a crime against me, I'd understand it a lot, but I think it will work."
"What ticks me off is when I drive through my city, and people tell me they're afraid, and that makes me angry," Caldwell said, "because you ought to be able to lay down in your house at night and not be afraid, and to me is what government is supposed to be there for."
But how to pay for it all remains a problem, and as lawmakers continue to re-examine House Bill 463, most agree there's no quick fix.
"I'm sure that we'll have to tweak that in some ways as we go forward," Beshear told WKYT.
"I don't have a solution," Caldwell admitted, "I'm just a guy riding around in a car and hitting people with sticks. I'd love to have a solution. There's guys out there a lot smarter than me that are trying to come up with a solution, but what we're doing right now ain't working."