By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Changes in the way some criminal offenders are sentenced, incarcerated and paroled have already saved the state money and most of the people affected — prosecutors, defense attorneys, county governments — say the new law is working well.
That doesn’t mean some minor changes aren’t needed. But the reaction to the implementation of House Bill 463, which addressed drug sentencing and probation and parole laws in an effort to reduce prison populations and reduce costs has been positive.
“House Bill 463 is working well,” said John Wilson, Garrard County judge/executive and president of the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo). “For the most part, the results of HB 463 have been positive.”
Wilson was speaking Monday to the Kentucky Criminal Justice Council which is charged under the law to review the its implementation and report to the legislature, according to J. Michael Brown, Secretary of the Justice and Safety Cabinet.
Wilson said some judges are not following the direction of the new law to allow low-risk offenders to be released prior to their trial dates. The idea is pre-trial release of offenders who don’t pose a public safety hazard saves counties because otherwise those offenders would be housed in jails at county expense.
Wilson said there have been about 17,000 fewer arrests since passage of HB 463, meaning 17,000 fewer inmates at county expense.
“But there are some in the judicial branch who refuse to implement some provisions of the law,” Wilson said.
Laurie Dudgeon, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said part of the problem is simply educating judges. AOC has conducted numerous training sessions but more are needed, she said. The court system has been hampered as well by budget cuts, she said.
Damon Preston, Deputy Public Advocate, told the council estimates are the pre-trial release has saved county governments $25 million. And according to Dudgeon and Preston, a higher rate of offenders showed up for trial dates than before HB 463 was passed and there have been fewer crimes committed while awaiting trial. Combined with lower recidivism rates by those paroled or released, public safety has actually improved.
“If we could persuade the other judges to use more pre-trial release, the savings for counties would be even greater,” Preston said. Dudgeon said in the new procedures represent “a culture change” and it will take time for some court officials to adjust.
She said only a few judges are utilizing the deferred prosecution option for minor drug offenders who are directed instead into drug courts or other substance abuse programs. The idea is to treat the substance abuse which is the cause of minor criminal offenses rather than jail offenders who are then likely to become re-addicted and re-offend upon release.
Even prosecutors are mostly pleased with the new law, said Jackie Steele, Commonwealth Attorney for Laurel and Knox counties, and Warren County Commonwealth Attorney Chris Cohron. Both worked closely with the task force which recommended the changes ultimately passed by the 2011 General Assembly.
Steele wants the legislature to adjust requirements to charge drug sellers with trafficking charges. Under the law, dosage limits or thresholds by drug schedule determine whether someone is considered an addict “peddling” drugs to support his own habit or a “commercial trafficker.”
Steele says the law should be tweaked to allow a threshold of total dosages across multiple schedules. In some cases now, he said, offenders sell smaller dosages of multiple schedule drugs and do so clearly for profit rather than simply to support their own habit.
Cohron said prosecutors would like to add some felony and misdemeanor levels to the penal code to distinguish between crimes designated as non-violent which nevertheless are of a violent nature such as DUI, fourth count, or vehicular manslaughter.
LaDonna Thompson, Commissioner of Corrections, said there have been fewer prison admissions since HB 463 passed. Populations have declined but not as much as anticipated. Part of that was delayed implementation of some provisions such as releasing prisoners under supervision six months prior to conclusion of their sentences.
Those who have been released but placed under supervision have a much lower rate of re-offending, according to DOC data.
Another reason is that parole rates have declined. According to Parole Board Chairman Larry Chandler, the historical average has been 43 percent but rose in 2010 to 53 percent and was 51 percent in 2011. But Chandler said “a conservative board” now has a parole rate of only 47 percent. The fewer parole releases account for part of the larger than projected prison population.
Brown plans to compile a written report reflecting the data and observations presented Monday by the various groups. That report will be sent to the General Assembly for its review.