Across the United States, prison populations are declining. Yet here in Kentucky, our prison population is growing. For the past three years, Kentucky has ended the year with the highest prison population in the state’s history.
According to a study by the Vera Institute, between 2008 to 2018, there was an 11.2 percent increase in the state prisoner population in Kentucky. On average, there was an 8.5 parent decrease throughout the United States (including the federal government) in prison population. Last year, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley told state lawmakers that the state’s prisons will be out of jail space by May 2019.
There are a number of reasons why Kentucky’s prison population continues to climb while other states have experienced a steady decline in their total number of incarcerated people. As a Lexington drug defense attorney explains, understanding the cause can help us figure out how to address the problem — and help more Kentuckians get the treatment that they need instead of punishment.
Why Prisons Are Overcrowded
When Secretary John Tilley, the state’s top public safety official, spoke before the Kentucky Legislature in January 2018, he informed legislators that the cause of the state’s burgeoning prison population is relatively straightforward. According to Tilley, the primary cause of the strain on the prison system is the opioid epidemic.
Addition to opioids has hit Kentucky particularly hard. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that there were 1,160 reported opioid-involved deaths in Kentucky in 2017, which is a rate of 27.9 deaths for every 100,000 people. Nationally, the average is 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
Prescription opioids are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Kentucky. Our state is one of the top 10 in the country for highest prescribing of opiates, with medical professionals writing 86.8 prescriptions for every 100 people. The national average is 58.7 prescriptions for every 100 people.
In response to the opioid epidemic, the Kentucky Legislature passed a law that was designed to address the issue. While this law did provide money for treatment programs and the overdose drug naloxone, they also increased the penalties for “trafficking” in opiates.
After the law was passed in 2015, the number of people admitted to jail in Kentucky for Class D felonies (such as selling less than 2 grams of heroin) increased by more than 100%, from 881 in 2012 to 1,821 in 2016. In addition, many prosecutors declined to exercise their discretion and refused to offer first and second-time drug offenders deferred prosecution so that they can seek treatment.
In 2017, House Bill 333 increased penalties for trafficking illegally manufactured fentanyl. It also lengthened the sentence for anyone convicted of dealing or sharing any quantity of heroin, even if that person is an addict himself or herself. As a result of these punitive bills, Kentucky’s prison population continued to soar to the point where its prison population is at an all-time high of 24,136 at the end of 2018.
Possible Solutions for Jail Space
Addiction is an incredibly challenging disease to overcome, particularly to a substance like opioids. Studies have shown that opioid use changes the brain, making it difficult for users to simply stop using without help. Punitive measures like incarceration are generally less effective than options such as treatment.
Treatment for Drug Offenders
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2007 alone, the cost to society of drug abuse was $193 billion, most of which ($113 billion) is due to drug-related crime. In contrast, the cost of treatment for drug abuse is just $14.6 billion. The agency concluded that providing treatment to offenders who are addicted to drugs is cost-effective and has been shown to reduce the costs associated with lost productivity, crime and incarceration.
In addition, drug treatment (as opposed to jailing offenders who are addicted to drugs) are particularly helpful for people who have co-occurring mental health problems and substance abuse disorders. Treatment can help participants to avoid incarceration, thus preventing future crime costs.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) agrees with this conclusion, finding that more and better treatment is needed in the criminal justice system. According to the NIH, treatment works, it is cost-effective, and it can help to end the cycle of drug abuse and criminal recidivism. The NIH recognizes that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that causes long-lasting changes to the brain.
Studies show that drug treatment saves between $2 and $6 for every $1 spent on it. When people involved in the criminal justice system do not receive treatment, they typically relapse and are re-arrested, often during the first 12 months after being released. For these reasons, drug treatment as part of the solution to the opioid epidemic — and reducing Kentucky’s prison population — is both a necessary and smart choice.
Legalization of Marijuana to Reduce Opioid Addiction
In Kentucky, the biggest problem with opioids comes not from heroin, but from prescription drugs. One solution to the opioid epidemic — and the resulting prison overcrowding — may be the legalization of marijuana. The use of marijuana for medical purposes, particularly to treat chronic pain, may help to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions in the state, and ultimately, the number of people addicted to opioids.
A study published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2018 compared the pattern of opioid prescriptions in states where medical marijuana is legal with states where it has not been legalized. Researchers found that in states where medical marijuana is legal, there were 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed each year (under Medicare Part D). Similarly, opioid prescriptions under Medicaid dropped by 5.88 percent.
Other studies have reached similar conclusions, finding that the legalization of marijuana can reduce opioid-related deaths by as much as 24 percent. In Colorado, the legalization of medical marijuana reversed the state’s upward trend of opioid-related overdoses.
Work with a Lexington Drug Defense Attorney
Kentucky’s current response to the opioid epidemic — filling our prisons with people who are addicted to drugs — is not working. Our prisons and jails are overflowing, and people battling a deadly disease are not getting the treatment that they deserve. As a community, we should examine other solutions to help reduce prison populations and help those in need of assistance.
At Baldani Law Group, we have worked with clients facing a variety of drug-related charges for more than 30 years. Based in Lexington, we help our clients achieve the most favorable outcome for their case, including (when possible) drug treatment. To learn more or to schedule