Imagine being arrested on Cave Run Lake for fishing without a license. It’s a simple paperwork error and you have the proof. All you need is your day in court.
Unfortunately, in Kentucky, you can be locked up indefinitely while lawyers find the time to deal with your case. That is because nothing in the commonwealth’s statutes defines what constitutes a “speedy trial.”
The right to a speedy trial goes hand in hand with the right to a fair trial. Holding a trial in a reasonable amount of time forces both prosecutors and the defense to gather and present evidence while it is fresh. It limits their ability to use court delays as a tactic and game an overburdened criminal justice system at the taxpayers’ expense. And it ensures that innocent people who get caught up in the broad net of the criminal justice system are not kept from their families, jobs and communities one day longer than necessary.
Given the importance of a speedy trial, it is no surprise that our Founders included it in both the U.S. and Commonwealth Constitutions. However, without a statute clearly defining what a “speedy trial” is, the “right” to one is just a mirage. In practice, it could mean waiting months or even years in jail for a court date – even for minor charges and misdemeanors. There are even cases where people are held awaiting trial longer than the maximum sentence for the charges they face. This hardly looks like the presumption of innocence.
The taxpayers shoulder the costs of this ambiguity, and the expense of a jail cell is not cheap. In 2019, Kentucky’s jailers spent nearly $400 million on operations. Like most people, we will pay whatever is necessary to keep our families safe. But paying to lock up people who are waiting for their days in court – when they are not threats to their neighbors – doesn’t make any sense.
The commonwealth can cut government spending by requiring judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to comply with a reasonable standard for a speedy trial. Savings could pay for more effective crime-fighting strategies like hiring more cops, paying for addiction treatment and job training for those behind bars, or funding violent crime task forces. These are the things that cut crime. Or legislators could give hard-working Kentuckians a tax cut. Either way, it’s better than wasting money filling jail cells when it’s not necessary.
Senate Bill 31 is a bipartisan proposal to create a speedy trial guarantee. It would establish reasonable time limits for a trial to take place. Unconvicted Kentuckians would be detained no longer than 90 days on a misdemeanor offense and six months on a felony unless releasing them while they await their day in court would pose a public safety risk. If the court finds that someone is a danger to the community, the judge would merely have to explain why. Otherwise, if the person is released, they will still face charges, and be held accountable if convicted.
Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.” While we certainly would not advocate for releasing 100 guilty people, Franklin’s words present an important truth – punishing innocent people is an incredible tragedy. That is why the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair and speedy trial are so important.
When Kentucky incarcerates people who are presumed innocent merely because lawyers can’t schedule a trial within a reasonable time, everybody loses. People wait behind bars while their jobs are given to others. Families suffer from the absence of loved ones. Taxpayers end up paying too much to keep cell blocks full when doing so doesn’t benefit public safety. And jails become overcrowded, posing a risk to other prisoners and guards alike. Kentucky can do better.
Placing reasonable time requirements on the legal system to give people their day in court is neither unreasonable nor harmful to safe communities. It’s time for Kentucky’s justice system to “either fish or cut bait.”
Brandon Storm is a Republican member of the Kentucky Senate representing Casey, Laurel, Lincoln, and Rockcastle counties. David Safavian is the General Counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation.
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Speedy trial' definition reduces Kentucky taxpayers' burden: Opinion