Newsbrief: Kentucky Governor Unveils New Drug Offender Plan -- Less Prison, More Treatment 1/23/04

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Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and his criminal justice point man, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, have unveiled a plan that would put more drug offenders in treatment and fewer in prison. The plan would also expand the state's drug treatment complex and fledgling drug court system, and it could put a hold on opening a new 1,000-bed prison under construction in Elliot County.

The Bluegrass State's reliance on imprisonment as a method of suppressing drug use and the drug trade has led to a budgetary black hole that forced former Gov. Paul Patton (D) to release some prisoners early in 2002. With nearly 12,000 prisoners, the state's prison population has increased 41% in the last decade, driven largely by drug offenders. With the state's budget still under severe pressure, Gov. Fletcher is now hoping to save money by keeping drug offenders out of prison. Each prisoner costs the state $17,200 a year.

Pence outlined his proposals to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they draw praise from lawmakers and treatment advocates, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. And while some whose oxen may be gored, such as legislators from the area where the new prison will not open, have complained, Pence was stalwart. Need, not jobs, should determine when to open the prison, he said. "I don't think we can let that be our driving force on our rate of incarceration," Pence said. "Somebody has to pay for this. It's going to be cheaper in the long run," he told the committee.

Pence will also fight for treatment money. At $5,000 per year, treatment is more effective and cheaper than prison, he said. "I believe that if we have to take money from somewhere else and put it in treatment, we'll have to do that."

Drug treatment programs are starved for funds, advocates said. "We're pretty busy trying to Band-Aid the system and deal with the lines of people at the door," state Division of Substance Abuse acting director Karyn Hascal told the Courier-Journal.

But it was mental health advocate Sheila Schuster who had the most intriguing take on the issue. She pronounced herself "thrilled" at the administration's support for treatment, but said the state needs to take a broader approach than "treatment not jail." How about providing treatment for those who ask for it, she suggested. "Don't forget the system of care for those who have not committed a crime," she said.

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