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Opinion: Kentucky cannot afford criminal justice reform fatigue

The following piece is an op-ed written by Ashli Watts, president and CEO, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and Julie Warren, director of state initiatives for Kentucky and Tennessee, Right on Crime

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Society cannot incarcerate its way out of the public health crisis that is drug addiction. But in making the possession of drugs a felony rather than a misdemeanor, Kentucky shows a stubborn willingness to continue to try.

Meanwhile, the drug addicts incarcerated alongside drug traffickers and violent criminals continue to suffer a health crisis, along with the compounded burden of a felony record that makes it difficult to secure housing and employment. We stack the deck against a drug addict’s return as a productive member of society and increase the risk they will further engage in a life of crime. Public safety is not served by erecting innumerable barriers to re-entry.

And the safety of Kentuckians is put at risk because the justice system diverts its limited resources from the prosecution of the drug traffickers fueling the demand, as well as violent criminals, to accommodate the expense of incarcerating drug addicts.

How do we quantify the human and financial toll taken as a result of felonizing possession? Back in 2017, Kentucky convened a Justice Reinvestment Work Group that issued a report warning that Kentucky’s prison population was on course to grow 19 percent in the next 10 years, with a projected additional cost of $600 million to the taxpayer. It identified a high incarceration rate of low-level, nonviolent offenders, particularly for property crimes and drug possession, as a primary culprit in Kentucky’s rising prison costs. In fact, admissions to the Kentucky Department of Corrections for drug possession, a Class D felony in Kentucky, increased a whopping 102 percent in just five years. Overall, nonviolent drug or property offenses accounted for 65 percent of those admitted to prison in 2016, and nearly half had no prior felony record.

Moreover, depending on whose stats you are looking at, Kentucky now boasts the second or third highest level of female imprisonment in the nation. The Work Group found that female prison admissions grew 54 percent in the five years preceding its report. Perhaps more alarming is the staggering 140 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated for drug possession in that five-year period.

Fast-forward two years, Kentucky’s practice of warehousing drug addicts continued to contribute to the burgeoning prison population and necessitated the lease of Kentucky’s second private prison since the issuance of the report. Unfortunately, some folks have confused this bad policy, with economic development and tout the expansion of the government’s corrections enterprise as job growth. Make no mistake, Kentucky taxpayers are footing the bill for these private prisons but will likely see little benefit to public safety in return. The operating cost of the most recent private prison facility could run approximately $15 million per year, and that doesn’t include the cost to lease the facility.

Kentuckians expect positive outcomes from the state’s response to drug addiction, not to mention a positive return on their financial investment. While some may claim the opening of the new prison constitutes job creation, Kentucky taxpayers deserve job creation that does not come out at their own expense or that of the health of their communities. To achieve this end, lawmakers should consider re-designating drug possession as a misdemeanor, as our neighbor Tennessee has already done, and reinvest the costs of incarceration into diversion programs where those suffering with addiction can receive the treatment they need. Recalibrating our focus away from the most expensive and punitive sanctions for drug possession, and toward a more rehabilitative response, restores communities and families, and promotes public safety.

It is time to reinvest in treatment and programs that provide the greatest returns instead of continuing to pour money into a broken and ineffective system of incarceration.