As the Kentucky House and Senate work together to pass much-needed legislation to combat rising heroin use, it's important that they don't undermine the state's recent landmark corrections reforms.
Before lawmakers enacted the 2011 reforms (House Bill 463), Kentucky had one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation. A major cause was an increase in incarceration for drug offenses. As a result, Kentucky's corrections spending skyrocketed from $140 million in 1990 to $440 million in 2010.
Decades of experience and reams of research show that a more effective approach is to lessen prison sentences for drug offenses and offer users substance abuse treatment. Locking drug offenders up just makes it harder for them to get their lives back on track. The corrections reforms work to reduce sentences and use the savings for programs that prevent inmates from returning to prison.
Much of the discussion about how to address heroin problems has been in line with the reforms. Both the House and Senate bills include attention to treatment. House Bill 213 would reduce a low-level heroin trafficking offense to peddling, which carries a lesser sentence. The bill also earmarks money to hire social workers to develop alternative sentencing plans for low-level offenders.
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But the increased penalties for even low-level drug dealing in Senate Bill 5 would move the state in the wrong direction. Sentences, which now range from one to five years, would increase to five to 10 years — costing the state an additional $98,000 to $160,000 per person. Even the House legislation makes a concession in that direction by increasing penalties for high-level traffickers.
In fact, the state needs to be even more aggressive in reducing corrections costs. While Kentucky has had some success in curbing prison-cost growth, we are yet to achieve the budgetary savings we had hoped, and prison populations have actually been on the rise recently. Partly that's because the share of eligible inmates released on parole has declined.
Both bills rely on savings from HB 463 to fund drug treatment; the House bill has other important initiatives, such as hiring social workers. The state should do more to reduce corrections costs in order to make such investments possible. House Bill 285 would require most inmates with low-level non-violent felonies to be released on parole when they become eligible. And House Bill 40 would make it possible for most charged with low-level felony offenses to get their criminal records sealed, enabling ex-offenders to find employment.
There is much more at stake than how to deal with the heroin crisis. It is also about whether we will continue our commitment to a more effective and less costly approach to addressing such challenges — or whether we will begin unraveling this approach when it has barely gotten started.