Sane proposals on drug crimes

Between 1985 and 2010, Kentucky's prison population increased by 260 percent, from about 5,700 prisoners to more than 20,700.

The cost of housing these inmates multiplied as well. In the past 20 years, the Department of Corrections budget grew from $140 million to $440 million.

This growth was not spurred by a soaring increase in crime. Our serious crime rate is about what it was in the 1970s, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

A variety of factors prompted this growth. A variety of changes will be required if we want to reduce the prison population, or at least slow the growth in it.

Thus, the set of recommendations presented Wednesday by a task force studying the state penal code covered considerable ground. Tweaks were recommended in everything from pre-sentencing investigations to parole. But perhaps none would be more meaningful than the suggestions relating to the handling of drug crimes.

Drug crimes represent a significant factor in the recent growth in prison population. Drug offenders accounted for 38 percent of all prison admissions in 2009, according to the Department of Corrections.

Some, perhaps many, of the people going to prison for drug offenses would be far better served by entering treatment programs instead. The task force recommendations reflect the growing recognition that throwing people in jail for long periods for simple drug crimes is outdated thinking.

Among its recommendations on drug crimes, the task force included:

■ "Presumptive probation" for simple possession of drugs.

■ A scale of penalties based on the quantity of drugs an offender possesses.

■ A delineation between major trafficking and the trafficking a user might do in order to feed his own habit.

■ Reducing the "drug-free school zone" from 1,000 yards to 1,000 feet

■ Limiting sentence enhancements and the use of the persistent felony offender statute in relation to drug offenses.

The latter seems a particularly reasonable change to make in relation to simple drug crimes, and could make a notable contribution to reducing the prison population.

Savings from making any or all of these changes in handling drug crimes should go to treatment programs, the task force recommended.

When they return to Frankfort in February, state lawmakers need to give serious consideration to all of the task force's recommendations, including the ones relating to drug crimes.

As a state, we can't afford the cost of housing increasing numbers of inmates. And we particularly can't afford to keep throwing people in prison who should be in treatment instead.