KY Policy Blog

Harsher Criminal Penalties Not a Proven Way to Address Heroin Problem

By Ashley Spalding
February 15, 2017

We all want to see Kentucky address its devastating drug problems. The issue touches individuals and families from all walks of life across Kentucky, and too many of us have friends, relatives and neighbors who have been hurt in some way by drug addiction.

Senate Bill 14, which passed the Senate yesterday, increases criminal penalties for possession of heroin and fentanyl, drugs that are most frequently involved in overdose deaths, as a solution to these problems . This approach would lock up more Kentuckians struggling with addiction for longer periods of time and increase the state’s inmate population (Kentucky already has the 12th highest incarceration rate in the country). And evidence suggests that unlike expanded access to drug treatment, it would not help with Kentucky’s drug addiction problems.

SB 14 would make the transfer of any amount of heroin or fentanyl (an even more powerful, synthetic opioid) a Class C felony carrying a 5 to 10 year sentence even for first time offenders. Currently, the transfer of a small amount of these drugs (under two grams) is considered a Class D felony, with a 1 to 5 year sentence. Under Kentucky’s very broad definition of trafficking, one addict sharing drugs with another with no cash involved is considered to be drug trafficking.

An established body of research shows harsh penalties for drug offenses do not result in a meaningful decline in drug use. Research also indicates increasing drug penalties can actually have a negative impact on public health as drug users may be afraid to seek help or utilize existing services, which can lead to greater spread of HIV and Hepatitis C by intravenous drug users. Other harms from increased penalties for low-level drug offenses include the loss of potentially productive years of life for inmates, their families and our economy, and the increased costs associated with the resulting growth in the inmate population.

In recent years Kentucky has acted on the understanding that harsh penalties for drug use generally lead to more harm than good. Reforms to the state’s drugs laws in 2011 led to important changes, including shorter sentences for addicts sharing small amounts of drugs and more inmates receiving drug treatment. Heroin legislation passed in 2015 resulted in some increased investment in treatment and other resources and alternative sentencing for drug offenders. The bill coming out of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (CJPAC), Senate Bill 120, is another positive step in the right direction for criminal justice reform in Kentucky. It proposes a number of provisions to improve reentry and reduce recidivism.

But SB 14 would move us back toward old approaches and take dollars that could be used for strategies shown to work. The fiscal analysis by the Commissioner of Corrections explains some of the potential costs of the current version of the bill in the following way: There are presently 493 offenders incarcerated in Kentucky for a Class D trafficking in heroin charge for an amount less than 2 grams. Under the current version of SB 14 these offenders would have instead been charged with the higher Class C felony. One Class D felony sentence of 1-5 years costs Kentucky an average of $11,464 to $57,320 over the course of the sentence. In contrast, one Class C felony sentence of 5-10 years costs the state an average of $121,995 to $243,910. One hundred inmates with Class C felonies cost the state $12.2 million to $24.4 million.

We should all be upset at the lost lives and damaged communities resulting from heroin addiction, but it is critical that we put scarce resources toward strategies that can make real progress on the epidemic, including increased opportunities for addiction treatment that is too difficult to access in our state.

Comments are closed.