Justice Secretary John Tilley

By John Gregory | 4/19/17 12:00 AM

For several years now, Kentucky criminal justice officials have faced a difficult juggling act: how to crack down on the drug scourge without significantly expanding the state’s prison population, while still getting criminals with an addiction the treatment they need.

To address those concerns, lawmakers recently passed bills to limit the amount of addictive painkillers that doctors prescribe, toughen penalties for drug dealers, and ease a felon’s transition back to society. Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Sec. John Tilley says the combination of those measures should result in fewer Kentuckians being incarcerated and less crime in the commonwealth.

Tilley appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss key criminal justice legislation enacted during the 2017 Kentucky General Assembly and explain how the bills are meant to work.

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Addressing Drug Addiction
House Bill 333, which received bipartisan support from lawmakers, takes two approaches to limiting the supply of narcotics. First, it makes trafficking any amount of heroin and synthetic opioids including Fentanyl and Carfentanil a Class C felony. Individuals convicted of dealing those drugs must serve at least half of their sentence before being eligible for parole. Tilley says targeting drug cartels and major dealers is important, but is likely to yield only temporary results.

”The fact of the matter is that street level dealers, whether they’re peddlers or whether they’re actually working for the cartels directly, they’re going to be replaced immediately,” says Tilley. “As long as the demand exists, the supply will meet that demand.”

And with that high demand, there are big profits to be made. Tilley says manufacturers in China are now supplying huge quantities of Fentanyl to the illicit drug market in the United States. He says dealers here can take $6,000 worth of the narcotic, turn it into powder form, and sell it for $1 million on the streets. If dealers can press Fentanyl into pill form, then their profits can jump to $6 million, according to Tilley.

“This kind of risk-reward scenario is the reason why we’ll always have traffickers and cartels until we reduce the demand for these drugs,” the secretary says.

To help reduce the number of people getting addicted to narcotics in the first place, HB 333 places a three-day limit on painkillers that doctors can prescribe to most patients. (The legislation provides exemptions for cancer patients, those in end-of-life care, and other special conditions.) The goal is to prevent patients from starting an addiction, or having unused pain pills wind up on the streets.

Tilley says Americans consume upwards of 90 percent of the world’s opioid supply, so this legislation encourages doctors to be more careful about who they prescribe narcotics to, and how many pills they provide. He also hopes it will further stymie addicts who go to multiple doctors, dentists, and even veterinarians seeking a supply of drugs.

The secretary acknowledges that the trafficking provisions in HB 333 could increase the state’s prison population at a time when officials are trying to cut correctional costs and reduce the number of Kentuckians behind bars.

Back in 2011, lawmakers passed similar legislation designed to crack down on drug crimes. House Bill 463 reserved longer prison terms for traffickers moving significant quantities of drugs, and lessened the penalties for many first and second arrests for simple drug possession.

Before the legislature passed HB 463, Tilley says the prison population in Kentucky was projected to be over 30,000 by now without the reforms contained in the law. Instead, it’s down to 24,000, but Tilley says that’s still higher than lawmakers expected it to be after passing HB 463.

Tackling Recidivism
The secretary estimates that the tougher trafficking penalties in HB 333 could increase correctional costs by $30 million. But he says he hopes that increase will be offset by savings generated by lowering the state’s recidivism rate.

Statistics show that about 40 percent of inmates in the commonwealth will return to jail or prison at some point. Senate Bill 120, which also garnered wide bipartisan support in the 2017 legislative session, seeks to reduce that rate by helping felons make more successful transitions back to their communities.

“When they return, we have to eliminate those barriers to successful re-entry: jobs, transportation, housing,” Tilley says. “Otherwise they come right back at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer, and a human capital cost to families, children, and communities.”

SB 120 offers increased job and job training opportunities to inmates who are behind bars and those who qualify for work release. Inmates will learn skills and gain valuable experience that can translate to good-paying jobs upon their release. The money prisoners earn from their labors can go to paying restitution to victims or child support, or they can put it into savings.

Some opponents argued that SB 120 was being too soft on criminals. But Tilley says putting offenders to work is a good thing.

“Would you rather have folks who are serving time sit idle in prisons and jails, or go to work and do something that not only is beneficial to society generally but is also good for [their] souls,” the secretary says.

Another facet of SB 120 makes it easier for felons who have completed their sentences to get an occupational license or certification. In the past, some state boards would automatically reject licensing applications from convicted felons. Tilley says those rejections often made little sense.

“In Kentucky, prior to this bill, you could practice law or medicine as a convicted felon but you couldn’t cut hair,” he says.

Under SB 120, licensing boards can no longer automatically reject the applications of former felons if their crime had nothing to do with the occupation they want to perform. If a license is denied, the individual can now appeal that rejection to their local circuit court. Tilley says that making it easier for ex-convicts to get jobs should reduce recidivism over time.

The legislation also creates a pilot program to help offenders with addictions, and it makes a drug treatment effort started in Jefferson County available across the commonwealth. Under the Angel Initiative, says Tilley, an addict can go to any Kentucky State Police post, surrender their drugs and drug paraphernalia, and request immediate treatment without fear of prosecution. Tilley says the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet is preparing a massive publicity campaign about the Angel Initiative and other available treatment resources as well as tools to educate Kentuckians about the proper use of prescription opioids.