Officials discuss impact of penal code reforms at Williamsburg forum
Former Laurel County Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Handy spoke about changes to the state's penal code Monday during a forum on the issue in Williamsburg. Handy helped write the new law.
About 50 people attended a Whitley County UNITE Coalition forum Monday evening to discuss the impact of Kentucky's new 150-page penal code reform act, and whether the pros of the new law outweigh the cons of it.
Proponents say the reform is Kentucky getting "smart" on crime, while critics say it is the state getting "softer" on crime sacrificing public safety to save money.
Representatives on the panel included several high ranking area police officers, a Whitley County drug court coordinator, and Tom Handy, a former prosecutor in Knox and Laurel County, who served on the special task force that recommended the reforms enacted by the state legislature.
The consensus of the group, if there was one, is that eventually the new law will probably help Kentucky's recidivism rate among criminals namely drug offenders, but that the crime rate might get worse under the new reforms before it gets better.
"I definitely think the crime rate is going to go up initially, and I think society is going to suffer initially because of that," said Williamsburg Police Chief Wayne Bird. "In the beginning, the bad guys out here are going to think the penalties are soft. It may not be in the long term."
Whitley County Drug Court Coordinator Tracy Richardson agrees that the new law will reduce recidivism eventually.
"I agree with Chief Bird. It's not like anything is going to happen immediately or quickly," she said. "It is proven that most people relapse three times before they ever stay clean. I think the emphasis on treatment is a good positive thing."
Corbin Police Detective Bill Rose, a 10-year veteran, agreed that without treatment, several drug offenders will get caught again.
In March, Gov. Steve Beshear signed the 150-page justice reform bill into law, which dramatically overhauled the state's penal code. The law came about after years of study to find ways to reduce Kentucky's corrections costs.
Between 1985 and 2010, Kentucky's prison population grew more than 260 percent. General fund correction's spending jumped from $140 million to $440 million between fiscal year's 1990 and 2000.
Handy said Kentucky has led the nation incarcerating people, and has put more people in prison than California. Kentucky is second only to Louisiana in putting people in jail.
One thing that drives that is putting people back in prison for "technical violations" of their probation, he said. This accounts for about 20 percent of those incarcerated.
Beshear's office maintains that the new law modernizes Kentucky's drug laws, and estimates it will save the state $422 million over the next decade.
The new law emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation efforts, and reduces prison time for non-violent drug offenders.
"It's not getting softer on crime. Hopefully, we can look at the crimes and the criminals and the procedure that we use to cut out the revolving door of those, who commit a crime, go to jail, come out and commit a crime again," Handy noted.
"If we need to be tough on that crime, we'll do it. We're going to collect more information on what it will involve. Hopefully, we can save money."
When money is transferred to corrections to house criminals, it takes away resources in other areas, such as law enforcement agencies, drug counseling, education and medical services.
"We need to reinvest money, and 75 percent of the money that is not spent on corrections will be brought around to use in a smarter way to treat those, who are apprehended for drug crimes," Handy said.
Before serving on the task force, Handy admits that he wasn't a big fan of outpatient drug treatment services, but he learned it has almost as much effect as inpatient treatment.
Whitley County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Pace, a retired 21 year state police veteran, who spent five years assigned to an FBI task force, said court ordered drug treatment can sometimes be effective in reducing the rate of recidivism.
Pace said he has seen a federally court ordered drug treatment program prove effective, but he cautioned that "treatment is for people, who honestly want help."
Rose cited the case of two brothers his department arrested, who refused to go to drug court.
"One boy smacked his arm and said, 'I'm addicted to the needle,' and he was proud of it," Rose noted.
Some people seek drug treatment as a means of staying out of jail though, Bird noted.
He has seen some drug dealers, that don't have a drug problem, claim to have a drug problem so they can get sentenced to 60 days of drug rehab and then a probated prison sentence.
Handy agreed that not everyone is suitable for drug treatment.
"Treatment is not a panacea or a silver bullet that is going to correct everything, but we need more treatment facilities for those, who do want to break the habit," Handy added.
Crime rate tied to drugs
Bird said that the crime rate is directly related to the drug problem. He estimates that 75 - 80 percent of crimes his department investigates are drug related.
He said one way to combat this is to hit the criminals where it hurts with asset forfeiture.
"If they are out here dealing dope, we need to aggressively go after and prosecute them. We need to seize their houses, seize their cars, take their money and hit them where it hurts," Bird said. "I think that is one of the ways we can combat it."
Not reformed since 1975
Handy noted that the penal code hadn't been substantially reviewed since its inception in 1975.
Handy, who helped draft the new law, said it is a good start, but he cautioned that it is just a starting point and a work in progress.
"We're not saying that what we did is the greatest thing. We're not saying it's the final chapter. We made a lot of changes. We have to look at what changes we made, and see how they work," he said.
Handy noted that the laws are sometimes a reaction to things, and at times we, as a society, may have over reacted with new laws that stay on the books.
For instance, the Legislative Research Commission estimates that there may be as many as 100 laws implemented over the years where no arrest has ever been made on.
Rose and others said one of the biggest mistakes they think the new law makes is downgrading the seriousness of marijuana, which is a gateway drug to several other more serious substances.
Reduces some costs
One benefit of the new law is that it reduces costs to counties by reducing the number of people in jail, Handy said.
"Counties will benefit greatly, which means taxpayers are going to receive benefits," Handy said.
For instance, counties are currently responsible for all jail inmate medical bills, but under the new law, they are only responsible for the first $1,000 of that bill.
The 2010-2011 Whitley County Fiscal Court budget has $125,000 budgeted for inmate medical services.
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