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Panel tackles prison overcrowding

FRANKFORT — A panel of experts is giving Gov. Steve Beshear more than 50 ideas for cutting the state's swollen prison and jail population.

However, some of the ideas could be controversial, such as reducing the charge for possession of less than an ounce of cocaine from a felony to a misdemeanor. Other ideas will be popular — but unaffordable — because of the state budget shortfall, including a plan to launch state-funded substance-abuse, education and job-training programs in the county jails that hold about 8,000 state inmates serving shorter sentences.

The Kentucky Criminal Justice Council debated the proposals Monday, rejected a few and agreed to hand Beshear its final report Dec. 1. Beshear will use the report as he drafts his criminal-justice legislative package for the 2009 General Assembly, said Justice Secretary Michael Brown, chairman of the council.

Brown said the council — which has been studying the criminal laws and working on the report all year — was not going to lower its ambitions because of financial concerns.

"I don't think our charge was to stick our heads in the sand just because there's no money on the table right now," Brown said. "We would have been remiss if we didn't come up with some long-term solutions to long-term problems."

Many of the state's roughly 21,000 inmates will keep returning to prison unless their addictions are cured and they are educated while they're a captive audience, said Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, a council member.

"Although we're requesting money now, the things we're suggesting will save millions of dollars in the future," Stein said.

Added Chris Cohron, commonwealth's attorney in Bowling Green: "This is probably some of the best money we can invest to see a reduction in the rates of recidivism."

The council comprises police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court officials, Justice Cabinet administrators and state lawmakers.

Their proposals include:

■ Reduce the criminal charge for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

■ Rewrite the law regarding drug trafficking within 1,000 yards of a school — a serious crime — so that it applies only to dealers trying to sell drugs to students, not to dealers with adult customers who happen to be in the general vicinity of a campus.

■ Establish different levels of drug trafficking based on the quantity sold, with lesser penalties for low-level sales.

■ Expand the use of home incarceration and electronic monitoring.

■ Provide substance-abuse, education and job-training programs in all county jails that hold state inmates, and create re-entry programs that ease newly released felons back into society from jail or prison.

■ Set a statute of limitations on less-serious felonies so they cannot be prosecuted after five to 10 years. Kentucky is one of a few states with no statute of limitations on felonies.

■ Raise the felony theft level to $500 from $300, where it has been for many years.

■ Offer more medical and geriatric parole to ailing and older inmates, who are expensive to care for and no longer pose a threat to public safety.

■ Reduce various aspects of the persistent-felony offender statute, which requires longer sentences for criminals repeatedly convicted of felonies.