Criminal justice changes touted to curb Kentucky prison population

Criminal justice changes touted to curb Kentucky prison population
Posted at 12:26 PM, Feb 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-20 16:33:16-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Alaina Combs' cycle of drug dependency and stays in jail ended when the treatment she received put her on a path to becoming a role model for others fighting addiction.

On Tuesday, Combs stood with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, his justice secretary and state lawmakers to promote legislation that would revamp part of the state's criminal code. The goal is to reduce the state's prison population, especially among low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

The proposals come amid grim forecasts that Kentucky's prisons will run out of space by mid-2019. The goal is to steer more drug offenders into treatment and away from incarceration — which advocates say would lower corrections costs without compromising public safety.

"We have a chance to move on something transformational to cut what would be unsustainable growth in our prison population," Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said in backing the legislation at a state Capitol event.

Combs said her life has come "full circle" thanks to treatment at The Healing Place in Louisville. The mother of two now works there, offering hope for others looking for a new start.

"By placing women into treatment — instead of right back into the environment which they came from, or right back in jail ... — there is a chance for hope and true recovery," she said.

A key proposal would reclassify first and second drug possession convictions to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The main contributor to Kentucky's surging incarceration rate is the number of low-level drug offenders being locked up, advocates said.

"We need to stop warehousing people in prisons who instead can be safely supervised and treated in the community," said Republican Rep. Kim Moser, the legislation's lead sponsor.

The rising prison population has coincided with Kentucky's struggles with opioid addiction fueled by prescription painkillers and drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

Wayne Turner, a retired police chief, said he watched for years as the criminal justice system became more focused on non-violent offenders struggling with drugs or mental health problems.

"Kentucky is spending a significant amount of taxpayer dollars on a system that, frankly, folks, ... is not working," he said.

Another proposal would raise the felony theft threshold. Under the bill, theft of anything more than $2,000 would be a felony. Now, the threshold is $500, one of the lowest in the country.

The bill would change the probation system to reduce occurrences when technical violations — such as missing a meeting or failing a drug test — send people back to jail.

The proposals are an outgrowth of recommendations presented by a committee that the state's Republican governor appointed to study the criminal justice system.

Combined, the proposed changes could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the next decade, Tilley said. He said the state is at a "critical juncture" in setting criminal justice policy.

Criminal justice reform advocates pointed to grim statistics in pushing for changes.

They said Kentucky now has the nation's ninth-highest incarceration rate. The state's female incarceration rate is more than twice the national average and ranks second highest nationally. Kentucky's prison population is forecast to rise by 19 percent in the next decade, strapping taxpayers with nearly $600 million in additional costs.

"These are not things to be proud of," Bevin said. "We can do better than this."