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Ky. House budget defunds program steering defendants to drug treatment

FRANKFORT, November 17 -- Rep. Patrick Flannery, R-Olive Hill, presents information concerning proposed D.U.I. legislation in the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary.
LRC Public Information
Republican Rep. Patrick Flannery from Olive Hill is the the chairman of the budget subcommittee on judicial issues.

The state budget passed by the Kentucky House last week included a last-minute amendment to completely defund a heralded statewide program steering criminal defendants to drug treatment instead of prison.

The Alternative Sentencing Worker Program has been within the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for more than a decade, now employing 53 social workers across the state.

The workers coordinate with public defenders, judges and prosecutors to craft a plan to steer criminal defendants to substance abuse or mental health services for rehabilitation, instead of costly incarceration.

A late amendment to House Bill 6 last week stipulated no funds could be spent in the next two fiscal years to support the alternative sentencing worker positions. This caught Kentucky Public Advocate Damon Preston by surprise, who says he was given no advance warning.

“From a state policy point of view, you're cutting one of, if not the most effective tools that's ingrained in the criminal justice system to help reduce incarceration and get people the help they need for substance abuse and mental health treatment,” Preston said.

According to Preston, his department’s alternative sentencing workers submitted plans that were approved to avoid incarceration in over 3,000 cases last year.

While some of those might have received probation anyway, Preston added that “a lot of them would be in prison today at substantial taxpayer expense — away from families, away from communities, away from improving their lives — if our ASW's weren't there to present a comprehensive plan that convinced the circuit judge take a chance on somebody and allow them on probation rather than in prison.”

The defunding amendment to the 257-page HB 6 was distributed in paper copies to House budget committee members just four hours ahead of its passage in a specially-called meeting last Wednesday. Rep. Jason Petrie of Elkton, the Republican chair of the committee, told members there were only three small and technical changes to the bill from another version distributed the night before, including “some language regarding alternative sentencing in the public advocacy department.”

“It is a substantial change and one that you would hope would only be done after substantial conversations, consideration and an opportunity for people who believe strongly in the program to defend it,” Preston said Monday. “That didn't happen.”

Preston said he asked Petrie in the committee room after HB 6 passed why the program’s funding was removed and was told to ask GOP Rep. Patrick Flannery of Olive Hill, the chairman of the budget subcommittee on judicial issues.

After asking the subcommittee chairman, Preston said that Flannery “simply responded that he doesn't think the program should exist.”

Petrie and Flannery have not responded to a request for comment on this story.

With HB 6 on the House floor for a vote the next day, Democratic Rep. Pamela Stevenson of Louisville asked Petrie if it removed funding for all 53 alternative sentencing workers. Petrie referred the question to Flannery, who said that it would, before adding that “there are plenty of social worker type positions in state government that they could be employed at.”

Preston noted that his department receives about $2 million of restricted funding each year from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy that is specifically directed to the Alternative Sentencing Worker Program, which they will now lose if this provision of HB 6 is passed into law. As for those 53 workers potentially being hired for other jobs, Preston noted they have a social work background and aren’t attorneys, so they would be unlikely to find a job in that department.

Alternative sentencing praise by judge, prosecutor

Though the Department of Public Advocacy social workers help defendants find a treatment plan as an alternative to prison, some prosecutors and judges also sing their praises for the positive impact they have on the local criminal justice system.

One of them is Neil Kerr, the commonwealth’s attorney for the 7th Judicial District serving Logan and Todd counties – the same area represented by Rep. Petrie.

Kerr says the presence of a social worker with the department over the past year-plus “has been a tremendous help” to his court, as they’ve improved efficiency by quickly connecting defendants with available treatment beds.

“It was a noticeable difference,” Kerr said. “Because all of a sudden DPA was saying, 'Hey, let me have my social worker look into XYZ' — somebody who was maybe better equipped to do that, as opposed to the attorneys figuring it out.”

That same sentiment was expressed by Circuit Judge Sara Beth Gregory of Wayne and Russell counties.

Judge Gregory — a former Republican state senator who recently worked in former Auditor Mike Harmon’s office — has served in the rural district for a year and has found the alternative sentencing worker’s role there to be “extremely valuable in the courtroom.”

“I think you could make the argument that they deliver the best value for the dollars that we spend in the legal system in many ways,” she said.

“Attorneys are good at a lot of things, but attorneys aren’t trained to be social workers. And so it's very helpful to have one with that specialization and that expertise who's involved in the process.”

Noting the local alternative sentencing worker is present and very involved in her court every day to assist attorneys and defendants in crafting treatment plans, Gregory said it is “a tremendous asset to our local legal system” and the proposed loss would be “detrimental to us.”

“To the extent that the ASWs help identify those treatment options and help connect individuals with the treatment option that's best suited for them, it brings a value to the entire system — from a financial standpoint, a public safety standpoint and really every angle that you might want to look at it from,” Gregory said.

She hopes the funding for the positions will be restored as HB 6 moves through the Senate, as the program “is really a good value to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth.”

Shortly before HB 6 passed on the House floor by a nearly party-line vote, Stevenson noted University of Kentucky and University of Louisville studies showing that for every $1 spent on the Alternative Sentencing Worker Program, the state saves $3 keeping people out of jail.

“Why would we fire 53 people who have proven results helping people stay out of prison? Why would we do that?” Stevenson asked.

Stevenson also referenced House Republicans’ recent passage of House Bill 5, dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act,” a tough-on-crime bill that seeks to increase sentences for certain violent crimes and those who provide drugs leading to a fatal overdose.

“If we're really serious about having a safer Kentucky and not just the words on a piece of paper, then what we will do is make sure that those that come out of prison and re-enter our communities have what they need to be successful, and to make sure that they don't go back into the systems,” she said.

LPM's state government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.