Prison Alternatives Bill Clears Legislative Panel

Frankfort, KY – Legislation touted as a way to curb runaway prison costs drew strong support Thursday from a Senate panel that endorsed proposals to strengthen drug treatment and alternative sentencing for some nonviolent criminals to keep them from being locked up.

The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send the measure to the full Senate, setting the stage for a crucial vote early next week on some of the biggest changes to Kentucky's penal code in decades.

In a fresh sign of its broad support, the measure was praised by Kentucky's chief justice as well as representatives for prosecutors, counties, public defenders and business interests.

"To me this is the bill of the session," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London.

Kentucky has been saddled with one of the nation's fastest-growing prison populations, and as a result taxpayer spending on corrections has soared by more than 300 percent since 1989.

Bill supporters told the panel that the measure would reverse the state's escalating corrections costs by steering more nonviolent drug offenders into alternative sentences and treatment rather than prison time.

Much of rising prison population is from the state's growing scourge of illegal drugs.

Treatment programs drew strong support as a way to prevent drug offenders from becoming career criminals.

"If we don't do treatment, then all we're doing is putting them into a revolving door," said Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger. He added that "every time they come out of that revolving door, they end up being a little bit better drug users instead of getting cleaned up."

Jensen had hoped for fast-track Senate passage of the bill Thursday. Instead, the vote was postponed until Monday after some lawmakers asked for more time to review the sweeping legislation, he said.

Jensen said he had no problem with the delay, and was confident the broad coalition of support would remain intact.

"I don't see any danger or any problem with putting this off for the weekend," Jensen said, predicting ultimate near-unanimous Senate support.

The measure already passed the House. The Senate panel on Thursday made minor revisions, and if the full Senate accepts those changes the measure would return to the House for further action.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, predicted the House will accept them.

Supporters said the measure could reap $422 million in savings over a decade. About half that would be reinvested to boost treatment programs and strengthen probation and parole.

The net savings is projected at $147 million over 10 years.

"This greater spending on our prisons has not produced a better result - we have not netted a better return for public safety," Tilley told the Senate panel.

The bill proposes reducing prison time for low-risk, nonviolent offenders caught with small quantities of drugs. Much of the savings would be redirected in treatment programs to deal with the spread of drug abuse in Kentucky.

Efforts to better assess risks posed by offenders would be among changes in probation and parole policies. The bill also seeks to improve probation and parole supervision.

Jensen and Tilley said the measure preserves tough penalties for violent offenders and hard-core drug traffickers.