Politics & Government

Big changes to Kentucky drug laws advance in legislature

FRANKFORT — The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night approved the most sweeping changes to Kentucky's penal code in a generation in an effort to reduce prison and jail crowding.

The committee voted unanimously to send House Bill 463 to the full House, where a floor vote is expected Thursday.

The result of much negotiation and compromise, the bill would steer many drug addicts into treatment and community supervision rather than prison. It drew praise from prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and local leaders. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce endorsed it, warning that the state's incarceration costs are draining resources that could better be spent on education.

The bill 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 the role played by drug crimes. Kentucky is being advised by the Pew Center on the States, which has helped organize similar reform legislation in Texas, South Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere.

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.

Among many changes, the bill would maintain existing penalties for people caught selling the largest amounts of drugs while reducing penalties for people caught selling lesser amounts. It would reduce penalties for drug possession — often to misdemeanors — and allow courts to send minor offenders to addiction treatment and place them on an appropriate level of community supervision.

Simply locking up everyone convicted for drug offenses hasn't worked, House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, told his colleagues. Since 2000, Kentucky's prison rate has grown by 45 percent, compared to 13 percent for the national average, with no reduction in the number of repeat offenders.

Kentucky needs to rethink who needs to be behind bars and who can be handled differently, said Tilley, the bill's sponsor.

Other changes include the development of "graduated sanctions" to use when possible to punish criminals who violate the terms of their probation or parole, rather than returning them to prison or jail for minor violations such as missing an appointment.

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

Legislative aides estimate the bill would save Kentucky about $42 million a year, although much of that would be reinvested in addiction treatment and community supervision.

A $147 million net savings over 10 years is possible, Tilley said.

One possible complication arose minutes before the vote Tuesday when Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, added an amendment to address jail inmates taken to local hospitals for medical treatment.

Yonts said he wants to stop "prisoner dumping," in which jails temporarily release a destitute inmate to the hospital for treatment and then put him back behind bars, leaving the hospital with the bills. His amendment would require jails to provide guards at the hospital to watch inmates getting treatment, and it would hold the jails responsible for reimbursing the hospitals at Medicaid rates.

Some local government leaders cited cost as they objected to the proposal, which was supported at Tuesday's hearing by the Kentucky Hospital Association.

The Kentucky Supreme Court is preparing to issue a decision that will address Yonts' concerns, Tilley said.