As the Kentucky House and Senate work together to pass much-needed legislation to combat rising heroin use, it’s important that they don’t undermine the state’s recent landmark corrections reforms.
Before lawmakers enacted the 2011 reforms (House Bill 463), Kentucky had one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation. A major cause was an increase in incarceration for drug offenses. As a result, Kentucky’s corrections spending skyrocketed from $140 million in 1990 to $440 million in 2010.
Decades of experience and reams of research show that a more effective approach to drug problems is to lessen prison sentences for drug offenses and offer users substance abuse treatment. Locking drug offenders up just makes it harder for them to get their lives back on track. The corrections reforms work to curb imprisonment by reducing sentences and using the savings for programs that prevent inmates from returning to prison once released, including drug treatment.
Much of the discussion this legislative session about how to address the state’s growing heroin problems have been in line with the reforms of HB 463. Both the House and Senate heroin bills include attention to substance abuse treatment to help inmates and those recently released from prison overcome drug problems. In addition, the House legislation (House Bill 213) would reduce a low-level heroin trafficking offense to peddling, which could carry a lesser sentence. The bill also earmarks money to hire social workers to develop individualized alternative sentencing plans for low-level offenders, which could help reduce incarceration rates.
But the increased penalties for even low-level drug dealing in the Senate legislation (Senate Bill 5) would move the state in the wrong direction. Sentences for these offenders, which now range from one to five years, would increase to five to 10 years—costing the state an additional $98,000 to $160,000 per person.
The General Assembly must not let the final compromise include such increases. Even the House legislation makes a concession in that direction by increasing penalties for high-level traffickers.
In fact, to afford the level of investment needed to prevent problems like heroin from worsening, the state needs to be more aggressive—not less —in reducing corrections costs. While Kentucky has had some success in curbing prison cost growth because of HB 463, we are yet to achieve the budgetary savings we had hoped, and prison populations have actually been on the rise recently. Partly that’s because the share of eligible inmates released on parole has declined.
Both the House and Senate heroin bills rely on savings from HB 463 to fund drug treatment and—in the House bill—other important initiatives such as hiring social workers.
The state should do more reduce corrections costs in order to make such investments possible. New legislation in this year’s General Assembly (House Bill 285) would require most inmates with low-level non-violent felonies to be released on parole when they become eligible, reducing the inmate population and associated costs. And another bill (House Bill 40) would make it possible for most Kentuckians charged with low-level felony offenses to get their criminal records sealed; such legislation could save the state money and even bring in revenue by enabling ex-offenders to find employment who could otherwise be hindered by their criminal record and end up back in prison.
The state’s public advocate has also identified at least eight other ways that Kentucky’s criminal justice system could save money and more fully realize the benefits of the 2011 reforms. For example, the state would save more than $3.7 million each year by creating alternatives to incarceration, and savings would also come from reclassifying minor misdemeanors as violations and raising the threshold for when a theft becomes a felony to $2,000 in stolen goods, from the current $500 threshold.
There is much more at stake in the current debates over heroin legislation than how our state will deal with the growing heroin crisis. It is also about whether Kentucky will continue its commitment to a more effective and less costly approach to addressing such challenges—or whether we will begin unraveling this approach when it has barely gotten started.