Fewer Drug Offenders in Prison Backed as Cost Cutting Move

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The state could save money by putting fewer non-violent drug offenders in prison and instead supervising them through probation, parole and substance abuse treatment programs, according to a report from a task force that has been studying Kentucky’s justice system .Revising the state’s drug laws — such offenders make up a quarter of the prison population — is one of several recommendations the legislature will consider during this year’s session, which reconvenes Feb. 1.The recommendations, which were presented to the interim joint Judiciary Committee Wednesday, are aimed at reducing prison costs and population while maintaining public safety. Legislative leaders also say the goal is to reduce the rate at which offenders commit new crimes. “What we’ve been doing is spending a lot of money and not doing much good,” said Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The recommendations are the culmination of work by the Pew Center on the States, a nonprofit organization, and a task force made up of legislative leaders, the Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice, the Public Safety Cabinet secretary and representatives of prosecutors, public defenders and county officials. Kentucky has had one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the country over the past decade. The number of inmates grew by 45 percent during that time, compared to 13 percent overall in state prison systems, according to the task force’s report. Despite that, Kentucky’s crime rate dropped just 6 percent over the past decade, compared to a 19 percent drop nationwide. Corrections spending in the state increased 214 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to the report. Legislators acknowledge that few, if any, of the task force’s findings and recommendations are new — at least four task forces have studied the penal code since 2003.They do, however, say the legislature must take action to slow the growth in prison spending and population If the state does nothing, according to the report, the prison population will increase by nearly 1,400 inmates and spending will increase by $161 million over the next 10 years We’ve been saying it for years: Let’s take the cost savings on beds and brick and mortar and reinvest it in mental health,” said Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson.“I think (the Pew study) lends the issue credibility and perhaps gives a wakeup call not only to the humanitarian crisis that we’ve been talking about for years, but the fiscal crisis as well,” she added .The strategy outlined in the report is to expand the use of alternatives to incarceration, such as probation, parole, electronic monitoring and substance abuse treatment. The money saved by housing fewer inmates in prison would then be used to pay for the treatment facilities, more probation and parole officers and other tools that seek to keep offenders from committing new crimes. The report says the recommended reforms are estimated to reduce the prison population by 3,000 to 4,000 inmates and save taxpayers millions of dollars in prison operation costs. It costs $21,700 a year to house an inmate in a state prison. Some of the reforms in the report are aimed at keeping non-violent, low-risk drug offenders out of prison. According to the report, 25 percent of the state’s prison inmates are being held for drug offenses.“The penal system thought, I thought too, that if you punish people and say if you do it again your punishment is going to be worse, that that would get them to stop,” Jensen said. “It hasn’t.”One recommendation is to distinguish between high-level drug traffickers and users who peddle small quantities of drugs to support their habit. The distinction would punish more serious trafficking more severely Other recommendations include lesser sentences for small quantities of drugs, revising sentencing enhancements for drug offenses and changing the required distance between a trafficking offense and a school building from 1,000 yards to 1,000 feet for purposes of an enhanced sentence..The report also recommends the state increase its use of tools that other states use to evaluate offenders’ likelihood of re-offending those assessments are used to determine whether alternatives to incarceration, such as probation, substance abuse treatment and electronic monitoring, would be cheaper and more effective at preventing recidivism — offenders committing new crimes.In addition, the report calls for more transparency with victims and requiring counties to seek approval from the state before building new jails. Chris Cohron, commonwealth’s attorney in Warren County, said prosecutors are working with legislators on the bill. He declined to discuss specific recommendations about which prosecutors are concerned. < Courier Journal, Louisville KY Jan 19th,2011>

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