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3 counties blocked from early release

SOMERSET — A ban could continue for months on using controversial new parole rules to release prison inmates from three southern Kentucky counties.

Whether such a ban will spread statewide, however, remains a question for another day.

In an order issued Monday, Circuit Judge David A. Tapp barred the state corrections commissioner from using the rules to release felons from his circuit from prison earlier than under previous policies.

Tapp's circuit covers Pulaski, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties. His order also bars letting people in those counties off parole supervision under the new rules.

The case involves changes that give felons additional credit toward completing their sentences, meaning they are released earlier.

The legislature approved the changes earlier this year. The goal was to save money by reducing the state's swelling prison population.

About 2,500 people have been released from prison or parole supervision since May under the rules. An additional 3,000 could be released from prison or parole by mid-2010 because of the rules.

The prosecutor in the circuit, Commonwealth's Attorney Eddy Montgomery, has sued to overturn the changes, arguing that they are illegal and unconstitutional and that they endanger the public.

Corrections officials have argued the rules are legal and don't threaten public safety, because nearly all inmates will be released someday.

However, Tapp issued a temporary injunction that will keep the ban on releases in place until Montgomery's lawsuit is resolved, which could take months. He had issued a short-term ban earlier.

If the Department of Corrections appeals Tapp's order, the case could result in a ruling that would overturn or uphold use of the new parole rules statewide.

State officials said they hadn't decided whether to appeal.

Montgomery said the ruling confirms there are serious problems with how the state is using the rules to release prisoners. In many cases, treatment for inmates who are drug offenders or sex offenders suddenly stops when they are released under the rules, Montgomery said.

"The high-minded goals of rehabilitation are being shot in the foot by a program designed to save money at the cost of safety," he said.

One controversial thing about the new rules is that people get credit toward getting out of prison based on the time they were on parole on previous crimes — sometimes called "street credit."

Just a few years ago, Tapp noted, the Corrections Department argued against applying street credit retroactively by giving credit for time on parole from prior crimes.

The judge also noted that although the changes were designed to save money, there is a cost to citizens in not keeping convicted felons in jail.

"The non-economic costs to these victims, in terms of homes burgled and property lost or destroyed, as well as physical and mental injury and trauma to victims, can hardly be reckoned," Tapp wrote.