By John Cheves — firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — A sweeping overhaul of the state’s criminal code, and particularly its drug laws, sped through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday but hit a speed bump on the Senate floor, where it was scheduled for a vote.
Some senators asked for time to read the 150-page bill, which would be the most substantive measure to emerge from the 2011 General Assembly, Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London, told reporters.
House Bill 463 would cut prison and jail populations and save an estimated $42 million a year, in part by shifting many nonviolent drug offenders into addiction treatment programs and community supervision.
The bill was tweaked in several ways Thursday by the judiciary committee, which went on to approve it unanimously. But nobody is raising any serious objections, Jensen said, and he predicted overwhelming Senate support on Monday, the new date for a floor vote.
“I don’t mind putting the time in on this. To me, this is the bill this session,” Jensen said.
Among the changes made by the Senate committee Thursday, the bill dropped from four to two grams the weight of heroin that would trigger heavier drug trafficking charges. The bill tries to reserve the longest prison sentences for people convicted of selling the most drugs, although the exact quantities vary by drug.
It also added more exemptions to a rule that would limit when police officers can arrest people — rather than issue citations to them — after officers see people committing misdemeanors. Originally, the bill exempted crimes involving sex, violence and weapons. The committee added drunken driving, incidents in which people pose a physical threat and incidents in which people refuse to comply with an officer’s instructions.
The House would have to concur with any changes made by the Senate before the bill is sent to Gov. Steve Beshear to be signed into law. Jensen said he briefed his House counterpart on the changes and expected no problem.
HB 463 is based on recommendations by the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act, which met throughout last year to address the state’s exploding inmate population. One-fourth of Kentucky’s nearly 21,000 prison inmates are serving time for drug offenses. The state is spending $460 million this year on its Corrections Department.
The Pew Center on the States, which was paid $200,000 to advise the task force, has helped with similar reform efforts in many other states.
Texas, for example, in 2007 faced a projected five-year prison inmate increase of 17,000. Texas followed Pew’s advice and raised parole rates, shortened probation terms and invested in more drug treatment and diversion programs. As a result, Texas has seen a 0.7 percent decline in its inmate population, according to Pew.
Roughly half of Kentucky’s savings from the bill would be plowed back into expanded community supervision, including hiring more probation and parole officers and buying electronic monitoring equipment, and addiction treatment programs. One-fourth of the savings would be used to help local jails with their inmate costs.
Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown, whose cabinet will oversee much of the expanded supervision and treatment, said Thursday that the bill establishes a schedule over the next few years for the addition of new services. The bill’s sponsors say its full effects won’t be felt until 2014.
“This won’t all happen overnight,” said Brown, who sat on the task force with Jensen and others. “We’ve planned this out deliberately and we’ve arranged for the revenue to be there as we need it.”