Time for change: Kentucky’s addiction to prison is breaking budget, destroying lives

Kentucky is much poorer, but no safer, because we continue to lock up so many of our citizens.

The state is poorer not just in money — over half a billion dollars spent imprisoning over 23,500 people last year — but in human capital.

Consider these chilling facts: Kentucky has the nation’s fifth-highest female imprisonment rate, nearly twice the national average; we lead the nation in the percentage of children with an imprisoned parent.

At the current pace, Kentucky’s prison population will grow another 19 percent in the next decade at the cost of an additional $600 million.

Early in the upcoming legislative session, bills will be introduced that aim to change this awful trajectory. Voters must push legislators to set aside their “tough on crime” rhetoric to embrace the commonsense recommendations that resulted.

The bills will be based on the work of a criminal-justice work group appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin to find “fiscally-sound, data-driven” policies that protect public safety, reduce prison populations and help non-violent offenders become taxpayers not repeat offenders.

The 30-plus page report contains detailed, data-based findings and recommendations across the criminal justice system but some broad strokes are instructive:

▪  People who have committed non-violent crimes related to substance abuse need treatment, not prison.

▪  Class D felony offenders who committed non-violent, non-sex crimes, like simply possessing drugs or property theft, accounted for all the recent prison growth; incarceration for more serious crimes has fallen.

▪  Time in prison increases the likelihood that someone will re-offend. Currently, Kentucky’s recidivism rate stands at a very high 41 percent in the two years after release.

No surprise, the work group’s recommendations focus on creating more rational, effective and less costly approaches. Some of the most important:

▪  Reclassify first and second drug-possession offenses to misdemeanors for people who have not been convicted of other serious crimes. This must be combined with substance-abuse treatment and follow-up supervision for misdemeanor drug convictions.

▪  Raise the threshold for felony property theft from $500 to $2,000. Although theft crime has fallen in Kentucky, imprisonment for felony theft has grown: 52 percent of convictions were for amounts less than $1,000, and 73 percent less than $2,000. States have raised this rate in recent years with no increase in overall property crime.

▪  Expand pretrial release of low-to-moderate risk defendants charged with low-level, non-violent or non-sex offenses. In 2016, almost 25,000 people charged with low-level offenses were imprisoned for a week or more pretrial, although 90 percent of those released were not arrested for a new offense before trial.

Although not in the work group’s recommendations, we will add another item:

▪  Repeal the portion of last session’s House Bill 333 — important legislation that imposed a three-day limit on opioid prescriptions — that removed the distinction between traffickers and users. That change made selling or sharing any quantity of heroin a felony punishable by five to 10 years in prison. This provision accounts for about 40 percent of the projected increase in the prison population.

Traffickers need to be in prison, users need help.