Kentucky’s prisons and jails are bulging not with brutal fiends and diabolical criminal minds but with non-violent drug abusers who stole something to support their habit then failed a drug test or missed an appointment with their probation officer.
The number of Kentuckians committing serious felonies is in decline. And, yet, prison admissions jumped 32 percent in five years, driven by the least serious felonies (Class D) and revocations of probation or parole for technical violations not for committing new crimes.
At this rate, the prison population will swell by 19 percent — requiring 4,400 new beds — over the next decade at a yearly cost of $600 million.
Kentucky’s addiction to mass incarceration is fueling at least two big problems:
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▪ Prison is the ideal place to turn low-level offenders into repeat criminals.
▪ The costs — both direct and indirect — are intolerable, especially when the state can’t meet its obligations to education, health care and public employees.
The longer the legislature delays, the costlier this unvirtuous cycle becomes. Other states, most recently Oklahoma, are moving to curb prison growth through criminal justice reforms.
Kentucky lawmakers must not go home without overhauling laws that are imprisoning too many Kentuckians.
Some prosecutors are telling lawmakers that supporting House Bill 396 would make them soft on crime. In fact, the bill, which has the support of a broad coalition, would help Kentucky respond more effectively to the drug epidemic and its many, many harms.
Some jailers and local officials also dislike the bill because convicting fewer felons would reduce their per diem revenue from the state while they could become responsible for paying to jail more misdemeanor offenders. Lawmakers should find ways to soften the negative impacts on local governments. But the revenue needs of local jails should not dictate the criminal code.
In 2016, almost two-thirds of Kentuckians entering incarceration were previously on probation or parole. Ninety-six percent of them were imprisoned for committing a technical violation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment. They end up serving more time for Class D felonies — nine months more for drug possession — than someone who was sent straight to jail for the same offense.
HB 396 addresses this by creating new penalties for technical violations, starting with up to 30 days for the first revocation ranging to two years for four or more revocations. It also creates an administrative parole process for non-violent, non-sexual offenses.
These sensible changes would save millions and endanger no one. So would lowering drug possession to a misdemeanor and raising the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $2,000, as HB 396 proposes. Those changes would have the added benefit of sparing thousands of Kentuckians from being disqualified from jobs and other opportunities by a felony conviction.
HB 396’s reforms to pre-trial release would save money and avert the injustice of jailing someone just because they are too poor to make bail.
Kentucky’s insistence on jailing addicts is worsening the effects of the drug scourge: Families are torn apart as many of those locked up are parents of young children. And felony convictions are foreclosing the future for people who belong in treatment not prison.