Sweeping bill filed to address prison crowding in Kentucky

lawmakers will have to act fast

jcheves@herald-leader.comFebruary 12, 2011 

State Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers on Friday filed a long-awaited bill to cut the state's prison and jail populations and save an estimated $42 million a year, although much of that would be reinvested in addiction treatment and community supervision.

House Bill 463 arrived on the 13th day of a 30-day legislative session. Supporters acknowledged they must act quickly to move it through the House and Senate, a potentially delicate task for a sweeping, 135-page bill that — among other things — would reduce penalties on some drug crimes.

"It's late in the day, but there's still time," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London. "I think we'll have consensus on nearly everything. There may be a point that gets further debate here and there."

Gov. Steve Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, issued statements praising the bill's supporters for their hard work but stopped short of a full endorsement.

"I will continue to monitor this bill as it goes through the legislative process to ensure that our prosecutors can use this as an effective crime-management tool," Stumbo said.

Offered the governor: "While I have not yet had a chance to fully review the bill, I am deeply appreciative of (its sponsors') efforts."

HB 463 is based on recommendations by the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act, which met throughout last year to address the state's exploding inmate population and especially the role played by drug crimes.

One-fourth of Kentucky's nearly 21,000 prison inmates are serving time for drug offenses. The state is spending $460 million this year on its Corrections Department.

"This legislation is perhaps the most far-reaching proposal the General Assembly has considered for the criminal justice system in at least a generation, if not two," said House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, its sponsor. "It culminates more than six very productive months of work."

Among the changes contained in the bill:

■ It would redefine drug trafficking laws to limit the longest prison sentences to people caught selling four or more grams of cocaine or heroin, two or more grams of methamphetamine or 10 or more narcotic drug pills. Lesser amounts would bring shorter sentences.

■ It would reduce penalties for first- and second-offense drug possession to probation or deferred prosecution, which means no penalty would be imposed if defendants completed addiction treatment and committed no new crimes. People charged with drug possession would be released before trial unless a court deemed them to be dangerous or a flight risk.

■ The persistent-felony-offender statute, which brings enhanced prison sentences for repeat criminals, would not be triggered by a drug possession conviction.

■ Police would issue citations, not make arrests, if they witnessed misdemeanor crimes other than assaults, sex offenses or weapons offenses.

■ The state would develop "graduated sanctions" to use whenever possible to punish criminals who violate the terms of their probation or parole, rather than just returning them to prison or jail for minor violations, such as missing an appointment.

■ Any state legislator who filed a bill to establish a new crime or strengthen the penalty for an existing crime would have to list the cost in terms of housing or monitoring criminals and identify a source of funding.

■ The Parole Board could not defer inmates' parole for longer than two years if they're convicted of a non-violent, non-sexual Class C or Class D felony. In all other cases, parole could not be deferred for more than five years unless a majority of the full Parole Board agrees.

■ Inmates would get more credit against their sentences for completing educational programs or drug treatment or performing meritorious service or important duties while in prison or jail.

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