May 7, 2013

‘Innovative government’: Social worker program recognized by Harvard

By Ronnie Ellis

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — FRANKFORT — Kentucky has two of the 25 most innovative government programs in the country, according to an announcement Wednesday by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The Alternative Sentencing Social Worker Program, operated by the  state Department of Public Advocacy, and the Metropolitan College in Jefferson County, a work force, education and economic development partnership among Jefferson Community College, the University of Louisville and UPS, are each in the running to be named the best program in the country and receive a $100,000 grant.

“Despite diminishing resources, these government programs have developed model innovations that other struggling agencies should be inspired to replicate and adapt to their own communities,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of The Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Ed Monahan, who heads Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which operates the alternative sentencing program in eight offices around the state. He’s hoping the national recognition helps generate funding support from the legislature to expand the program.

It saves the state $3.25 for every $1 invested, Monahan said, and places mostly low-level, non-violent offenders whose real underlying problem is substance abuse into treatment programs.

Social workers are paired with public defenders and with approval by a judge, offenders are placed into a case management system of rehabilitation, drug screenings and regular reports to the court rather than sentencing them to jail time.

Incarceration in a county jail for such offenders costs counties about $11,000 a year while those sent to prison cost the state as much as $20,000 annually. When the inmate completes his sentence, he often reverts to substance abuse and petty crimes to finance his habit.

The program has an 80 percent success rate with only 18 percent of clients re-offending after a year. It is supported by judges and prosecutors as well as client advocates and defense attorneys.

Monahan said the national recognition will help him make the case to lawmakers to fund an expansion of the program to all 31 DPA regional offices which could produce additional, significant savings to the state.

Metropolitan College provides eligible Kentucky residents tuition-free post-secondary education while working part-time at UPS, receiving wages and benefits. Participants may attend JCTC or U of L and in addition to tuition they receive book reimbursement and bonuses for academic completion.

The 25 programs recognized by the Ash Center underwent rigorous examination by panels of experts in issues addressed by the programs. They were judged for novelty, innovation, addressing important problems and effectiveness.

The 25 programs will be narrowed to a list of five finalists and evaluators will visit those programs before selecting one for a $100,000 grant. Goldsmith said the purpose is to encourage replication of successful programs by other states.

The 25 award winners were chosen because they foster “a new culture of innovation,” according to the press release announcing the winners. The programs include projects to help troubled neighborhoods, environmental revitalization and the next generation workforce.

The full list of winners can be found online at

The Innovations in American Government Awards was created by the Ford Foundation in 1985 to highlight effective government programs.