Politics

Last year, Gov. Matt Bevin agreed to reopen some private prisons to alleviate overcrowding. And earlier this year, Kentucky’s top public safety official said the state’s prisons will run out of space by May 2019.

Supporters of a new House measure say the bill could help curb incarceration rates — but it seems to have stalled in committee for now.

House Bill 396, sponsored by Republican Representative Kimberly Poore Moser, would reclassify some non-violent drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and allow courts to order counseling, court repayment plans, probation credits and more.

Daniel Cameron, a Kentucky Smart On Crime Coalition spokesman, praised the bill and said it would benefit Kentuckians affected by the drug and opioid crisis.

“This is a problem — an epidemic that has touched so many different parts of our civil society,” Cameron said. “Every dollar we have to put in the Department of Corrections to house somebody that is a drug addict, as opposed to allowing them to get treatment, is a dollar that we can’t use in going after the most violent and heinous criminals and crimes in our communities.”

But Hardin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young disagrees, calling the measure “one of the most haphazard, dangerous bills” he’s seen from the legislature.

Young said he worries reclassifying certain drug-related felonies as misdemeanors would harm those charged with the crime as well as other citizens. Young said drug treatment and mental health counseling are good options, but getting legislators to allocate funding is difficult.

“If you’re serious about it and not just giving lip service, fund treatment,” he said. “Because I can’t just turn these people out on the street with nothing. Because the product you’re putting out on the street is the same one who just walked into jail 24 hours earlier. In order to have those treatment beds you have to fund it. Getting someone to fund something nowadays, you’d have a better chance of hitting the Powerball lottery.”

Both Bevin’s proposed budget and the House budget recommend cuts to funding for the Office of Drug Control and Policy and the Department of Health and Family Services, which supplies mental health treatment and drug prevention resources.

Bevin’s budget recommends an increase for the Department of Corrections — $117 million by 2020. The largest piece of that, $37.9 million, would fund a return to private prisons in Kentucky. The increase in funding remains in the House version of the budget as well.

Cameron with Kentucky Smart On Crime said if House Bill 396 fails to pass, the coalition will continue pushing for its passage during the next legislative session. The measure is still in committee.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.