Revamp state's penal code; bring sanity to drug penalties

All too often in Frankfort, task forces spend months studying issues only to see most of the product of their work — their proposals for addressing those issues — be ignored by the General Assembly.

Fortunately, that does not appear to be happening with the recommendations of the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act.

Companion bills, filed in the House and Senate Friday by the two chambers' Judiciary Committee chairmen. contain many of the recommendations the task force, aided by the Pew Center for the States, developed during six months of searching for ways to contain the high cost of keeping people behind bars in Kentucky.

The House version of the legislation, House Bill 463, could be voted on by the full chamber as early as today.

Chief among the many attributes of HB 463 (and Senate Bill 161) is the new approach it takes to drug crimes. Acc ording to the Department of Corrections, drug offenders accounted for 38 percent of all prison admissions in 2009.

So, any attempt to slow or reverse the recent rapid rise in Kentucky's prison population has to begin with drug crimes.

Under the provisions of the proposed legislation:

■ Penalties for simple possession of small quantities of drugs would be reduced for first and second offenses.

■ Penalties for minor trafficking by drug users as a means of obtaining their own drugs would be less severe than those major traffickers would face.

■ Use of sentencing enhancements and the persistent felony offender statute for drug crimes would be limited.

■ The "drug-free school zone" would be reduced from 1,000 yards to 1,000 feet.

■ There would be increased emphasis on drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.

Although a more sensible approach to dealing with drug crimes may dominate the discussion of the task force's work, the changes this legislation would make run the gamut of corrections-related issues — from pre-trial sentencing investigations to the operations of the state Parole Board.

If enacted, this legislation is expected to start generating $42 million in savings in 2114, with about half of that amount getting reinvested in drug treatment programs.

The savings and the increased emphasis on treatment would represent a welcome change from a trend that saw the state's corrections budget increase from $140 million in the 1990 fiscal year to $440 million in 2010, a rate of growth that is simply unsustainable.

Kentucky lawmakers can start to reverse that trend by enacting these proposed changes in penal and drug laws.