KY Policy Blog

New Study Provides More Evidence Harsher Penalties Are Not Solution to State’s Drug Problems

By Ashley Spalding
July 11, 2017

At the same time our state is increasing criminal penalties for heroin, a new analysis further bolsters existing research showing such an approach is not an effective way to address Kentucky’s drug problems.

House Bill 333, which the Kentucky legislature passed earlier this year, increases penalties for low-level heroin and fentanyl trafficking — rolling back the drug sentencing reforms in 2011’s House Bill 463. The new law makes trafficking in heroin in less than 2 grams a Class C felony, with a 5 to 10 year sentence and no eligibility for parole until 50 percent of the sentence is served. This increase is a big jump from the crime’s former classification as a Class D felony with a 1 to 5 year sentence and parole eligibility after serving 20 percent of the sentence. Kentucky’s broad definition of trafficking means those charged with trafficking in these small amounts may be sharing drugs or selling just enough to support their habit, rather than engaging in large-scale dealing.

Despite compounding evidence to the contrary, legislators involved in passing HB 333 cited the need to do something about the state’s devastating opioid epidemic. But the new study by Pew adds to the large body of research showing harsher penalties for drug crimes do not reduce substance abuse.  They are, however, costly to individuals and families as well as the state.

Pew set out to understand “whether and to what degree high rates of drug imprisonment affect the nature and extent of the nation’s drug problems” by comparing publicly available data from law enforcement, corrections and health agencies. If imprisonment was an effective deterrent to drug use and crime, then states with higher rates of imprisonment for drug offenses would have lower rates of drug use among their residents — other things held constant. However, when Pew compared state drug offender imprisonment rates with three important measures of state drug problems — self-reported drug use rates (excluding marijuana), drug arrest rates and drug overdose death rates — no statistically significant relationship was found. These results account for variation in states‘ education level, unemployment rate,  racial diversity and median household income.

According to Pew: “What research does make clear is that some ways of reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others — and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of the list. Putting more drug offenders behind bars — for longer periods of time — has not yielded a convincing public safety return. What it has generated, without doubt, is an enormous cost for taxpayers.” The increased costs associated with greater imprisonment for drug offenders means less funds for “programs, practices and policies that have been proven to reduce drug use and crime” — which is a net loss for public safety.

Kentucky is clearly heading in the wrong direction with its drug laws — a trend that is especially troubling given recent reports of jail overcrowding, plans to reopen private prisons and a Department of Corrections budget that is $43 million over projections for this year alone, according to the Justice Cabinet.

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