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A “landmark justice reform bill” designed to decrease the state’s prison population, reduce incarceration costs, reduce crime and increase public safety was signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Steve Beshear.
That’s how the state describes House Bill 463 which reduces prison time for low-risk, non-violent drug offenders who possess small amounts of illegal drugs. HB 463 is estimated to save the state $422 million over the next decade.
But it could have a negative impact on the budgets of local jails that rely on the housing of state Class D inmates for funding.
“This would save the state $40 million annually in corrections. It would be a $40 million loss to local governments,” said LaRue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner.
Many Class D inmates will be removed from county jails and put into halfway houses with electronic monitoring programs. The state says the treatment programs will be less expensive to operate than jails.
With fewer state inmates being housed in local facilities, the competition for federal and state inmates can be expected to rise. According to Jail Consultant Joey Stanton, Marion County once held all the federal inmates from the western part of the state. Now several other jails, including LaRue County, have contracts.
Turner, who had a seat on the committee that recommended the legislation, knew the changes were proposed. He and Stanton – who ran a successful federal inmate program in Grayson County – began working last summer to land a contract with the U.S. Marshals to house federal inmates.
The federal contract was tough to negotiate but very lucrative for the county, Turner said. It could produce up to $950,000 – which will more than offset the lost revenue caused by fewer state inmates being housed in LaRue County.
Background of House Bill 463
Although county jails are scrambling to make up for lost revenue created by the passage of HB 463, the state is praising the changes.
The bill is the product of recommendations from the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act that met several times in 2010. Members included Sen. Tom Jenson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; J. Michael Brown, secretary of the justice cabinet; Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; Chief Justice John D. Minton; and Turner.
The committee, funded to the tune of $200,000 by the governor’s office, worked with The Pew Center for the States, a non-partisan research organization that studies public policy issues.
One of the main points of the bill establishes the difference between “trafficking” in large amounts of drugs and “peddling” a pill, said Rodney Ballard, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Traffickers will continue to serve prison sentences; low risk “peddlers” will be placed in treatment programs.
The new law ensures there is more prison space available for violent and career criminals – without building more jails. The bill provides funding for drug treatment and strengthens probation and parole laws.
“We realize we can’t build our way out of this problem,” said Ballard. “There must be treatment plans. Families (dealing with non-violent drug offenders) are desperately searching for alternatives to incarceration.”
The bill also increased the amount of Medicaid payments for medical services provided to inmates in county jails.
According to the Legislative Research Commission, the state has about 20,500 prison inmates and spends about $440 million a year on Corrections. In 2008, the Pew Research Center reported Kentucky had the fastest growing prison population in the nation. However, the state’s crime rate was actually going down.
The bill retains the existence of the original task force, which will continue to look for “the best way to protect Kentuckians in a cost-effective way,” according to the LRC.
The seven-member task force “re-authorized” its own continuance to work on other aspects of the penal code.
Brown told Ryan Alessi, host of Pure Politics, that the committee is considering the creation of a new class of felonies to go with the classes A, B, C and D.
The crimes will be redefined as crimes against property versus crimes against people.
First time offenders, charged with drug possession, will enter programs that do not “excuse” criminal behavior, but break the cycle of abuse, said Brown. He said it could cost up to $3,000 to treat a drug abuser and hopefully remove them from the system. But, it costs more than $21,000 to incarcerate him and the abuse cycle may not be broken.
Treatment programs may last nine months to a year, Brown said.
The bill also provides for the hiring of about 60 additional parole and probation officers to provide more supervision of the parolees, Brown said. The last six months of probation are served under mandatory supervision.
“We’re going to be able to have a ramp-up period of several months to get our staff and our infrastructure in place prior to when we have programs set up for these inmates, so when they come out, we’ll be ready for them,” Brown said.
“We don’t want to be understaffed when it goes into effect.”
The changes are expected to save the state $13-17 million the first year, according to Brown. The savings of prison costs will be reinvested into treatment options.
Brown anticipates more input from the Pew Center as the committee continues to meet.
The Brown-Alessi interview can be viewed at
Watch the fiscal court session at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEoWB2h3eHI.
Deanna Lasley of The Record contributed to this article.