Amid Kentucky’s heroin crisis, a number of bills have been filed for the 2015 legislative session to address the problem. However, some aspects of what is being proposed would work against the corrections reforms passed in 2011—increasing the state’s prison population and costs while having little expected impact on crime.
Kentucky passed the “Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act” (HB 463) in 2011 in response to the growing recognition that mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes have cost Kentucky—and other states—a lot of money and have not necessarily led to decreased crime rates. Kentucky had developed a reputation as having one of the fastest growing prison populations in the nation, and state corrections spending increased from $140 million in 1990 to $440 million in 2010—an increase of 214 percent. HB 463 worked to curb the number of inmates by lessening sentencing for drug offenses and taking measures to reduce recidivism, including by promoting drug treatment for offenders. By decreasing the prison population in Kentucky, HB 463 was designed to save the state money, with savings going primarily to fund substance abuse treatment as well as other programs to reduce recidivism.
While there have been some periods of decline in the prison population as a result of HB 463, the decrease—as well as the savings to the state—is not as much as had been forecast, in part because parole rates have unexpectedly gone down and therefore inmates are staying in prison longer. According to a January 2014 publication, HB 463 had resulted in a total savings of $34.3 million at that point. However, Kentucky’s inmate population has been increasing fairly steadily since mid-2013 and is now nearly back to 2011 levels. Kentucky’s public advocate is recommending criminal justice reforms that would build on HB 463 and save the state additional money—for instance, by creating alternatives to incarceration. As noted in a paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, criminal justice reforms that reduce incarceration can enable states to make greater investments in education, which is underfunded in Kentucky and other states with large prison populations.
Meanwhile, aspects of the heroin legislation being proposed this session would go against the goals of HB 463—as well as public opinion that supports focusing more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine—by increasing Kentucky’s inmate population.
- SB 5—which already passed the Senate—would require that anyone convicted of trafficking in heroin—including their first offense and regardless of the quantity of heroin, be charged with a Class C felony. Currently trafficking in heroin first degree for less than two grams is a Class D felony for a first offense. If the proposed change is made, incarceration timeframes are expected to increase from 1-5 years (for a Class D felony) to 5-10 years (for a Class C felony). A Class D Felony sentence of 1-5 years costs Kentucky an average of $12,014-$60,072, while a Class C sentence of 5-10 years costs $110,191-$220,382. Those charged with Class D felonies are typically housed in local jails at a cost of $32.92 per person per day, while Class C felony offenders are typically housed in state prisons, which costs the state approximately $60.38 per person per day.
- SB 5—as well as SB 12 and HB 112—would require that anyone convicted of trafficking in heroin serve 50 percent of their sentence prior to becoming eligible for parole. Currently an inmate with a heroin trafficking conviction has to serve 20 percent of his/her sentence before being considered for parole. According to SB 5’s Corrections Impact Statement, “Increasing the parole eligibility rate from twenty percent to fifty percent could potentially increase costs associated with a longer period of incarceration.”
Some of the state’s heroin bills take more of a public health approach—proposing needle exchange programs as well as addressing substance abuse treatment (i.e., HB 41). However, none of the legislation necessarily expands access to drug treatment. SB 5—as well as HB 61—shifts some of the Department of Corrections (DOC) savings from HB 463 away from DOC programs and to Kentucky’s Agency for Substance Abuse Policy (KY-ASAP) programs in or under the supervision of local jails and to community mental health centers that offer substance abuse treatment for heroin and other opiates; these funds were already going to DOC programs to address substance abuse and other issues related to recidivism. HB 41 would require an annual report to the Legislative Research Commission concerning the status of substance abuse treatment in Kentucky.
Access to drug treatment in Kentucky has been expanded through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which requires that both Medicaid and the insurance offered through the ACA’s health care exchanges broadly cover substance abuse treatment. However, access remains limited. Medicaid covers outpatient treatment, but many who struggle with substance abuse require intensive in-patient treatment. Unfortunately in order for Medicaid to cover in-patient treatment, a facility must have no more than 16 beds, so many treatment facilities do not qualify. It can also be difficult to access substance abuse treatment in prison, where waiting lists are quite long.
The costs to the state of extending sentences and time served for those who commit heroin-related offenses do not seem to be balanced out by clear benefits as there isn’t strong evidence that such an approach would curb heroin trafficking and overdose deaths. Improving access to drug treatment and the quality of treatment provided—and continuing to reduce the state’s prison population and related costs—would be better strategies for Kentucky.