The Christian Science Monitor

In Kentucky, all sides agree on need for criminal justice reform. But how?

Tahiesha Howard (l.) and Katie Janes, both of whom have overcome drug addictions, wait to meet with a state legislator to discuss criminal justice reforms. Kentucky has been working to reform its criminal justice system since 2011, but has struggled of late with reducing its prison population. Source: Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor

In 2009, both Tahiesha Howard and the state of Kentucky were looking for a fresh start.

Ms. Howard’s childhood was such a blur of dysfunction and addiction she says she couldn’t remember her first drink of alcohol. By her 30s, one judge labeled the mother a “menace to society.”

Kentucky, meanwhile, had become a poster child for ineffective and unsustainable mass incarceration – its prison system growing at quadruple the national average despite a consistently low crime rate.

Howard bought a one-way ticket to Louisville and began trying to conquer a drug addiction. Two years later, the Kentucky legislature passed a landmark law aimed at lowering the state’s prison population. For several years, things went well, for Howard and Kentucky. The inmate population dropped, while Howard stayed clean. She completed an in-patient drug treatment program, found a $16-an-hour job, and was saving to buy a house.

Then, as Howard describes it, “stuff happened” – and not just for her. She relapsed, losing her job and her home – eventually returning to the same treatment center she’d graduated from in 2011. Meanwhile, Kentucky struggled in the grip of the opioid crisis. Desperate to respond, the state legislature toughened sentences on heroin and fentanyl trafficking. For this and other reasons, experts in the state say, the prison population began to explode. Again.

Today, Howard is clean again. On an icy morning last month, she is sitting in the basement cafeteria in the state Capitol, her dyed-red dreadlocks and leopard-print vest standing out in a sea of suits. She, along with a half-dozen other recovering addicts sporting “Kentucky Smart on Crime”

Early stepsIf not prison, where?'It’s never-ending'

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