Whitesburg KY

Treatment, not jail

It has never made sense to lock up nonviolent drug offenders for the obscenely long sentences forced upon judges by vote-courting legislatures. Such offenders need a shot at intensive drug treatment before they are sentenced to intensive prison lockup.

Now, with the floor dropping out of the economy and budgets suffering massive shortfalls, the lock-’em-up sloganeering rings hollow and common sense has been forced upon us: Some states are considering alternatives to incarceration, including early release and diversion programs, for such offenders.

Count Kentucky among those states.

In 1970, Kentucky’s prison population was fewer than 3,000 inmates.

In 2009, that number has grown to about 22,000. Among the current population, a whopping 6,110 are locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. (It is estimated that 80 percent of the people involved in the state’s criminal justice system are there as a direct or indirect result of drug abuse.)

All of that is why a new initiative signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear at the end of the just-concluded General Assembly is such welcome news.

Billed as a way to control the prison population and to modernize the state’s penal code, the law offers first-time and repeat offenders with no history of violence or sex crimes a pre-trial option to undergo substance abuse treatment in jail or in an approved and secured setting.

Offenders are screened, and the treatment — from 90 days to a year — is voluntary. If an offender successfully completes the program, the judge hearing the case can expunge or reduce the charges.

The monetary cost per offender in this new program is about the same as if the person were jailed.

The potential benefit for all of us is much better than continuing to do what has swollen Kentucky’s prison population to 22,000, more than one-fourth of them nonviolent drug offenders.

— The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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