Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

November 21, 2011

‘Misinformation’ biggest problem for HB463

FRANKFORT — The overhaul of drug sentencing laws passed last year by the General Assembly is showing positive results and most criticism is the result of “misinformation,” according to Warren County Commonwealth Attorney Chris Cohron.

House Bill 463 reduced sentences for first-time drug offenses while imposing stiff penalties on those trafficking in drugs. It reformed some parole policies and provided treatment options for drug addicts and is aimed at reducing prison populations and costs. But it ran into resistance from a few prosecutors and law enforcement personnel.

But at a meeting of the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act Task Force Monday, members were told most resistance comes from those who don’t understand what the law does.

“The biggest obstacle we’ve had to overcome is misinformation about what is in the bill,” Cohron aid.

 “The success stories are far greater than the problems,” said Rep. John Tilley, one of the co-chairs. He said the task force and legislature always expected some of the changes might not work as expected and would be “tweaked” in subsequent sessions.

Data compiled by Tara Boh Klute, chief operating officer of the Division of Pre-Trial Services, indicate the law is working. Judicial case loads are down, more defendants show up for court hearings and the percentage of defendants charged with new offenses while on pre-trial release is down.

After last year’s success, the group (Judiciary chairs Tilley and Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London; Chief Justice John Minton; Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown; LaRue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner; retired Commonwealth Attorney Tom Handy; and defense attorney Guthrie True) agreed to recommend further changes to the penal code. Jensen said Monday the task force will review recommendations for the coming General Assembly at the group’s Dec. 10 meeting.

One issue the task force is likely to take up is whether to require prescriptions for ingredients used to manufacture methamphetamine. Jensen sponsored legislation in the last session to do that, but the bill ran into resistance from those who complained it inconveniences cold and allergy patients. Pseudoephedrine is found in many over the counter medications but it can be “cooked” in small homemade labs to manufacture meth. Those labs can explode and the ingredients are toxic. There have been well publicized cases where children were poisoned or injured by exploding labs and law enforcement personnel have also suffered injury. Two bills have already been pre-filed by House members, one which would require a prescription and another which would track pseudoephedrine purchases, limiting customers to small amounts each month.

But Cohron said the latter approach won’t work. He told of a meth manufacturer in Warren County who paid college students between $50 and $75 to “walk across the street and buy a box of Sudafed,” a practice known as “smurfing.” Dealers who exceed monthly purchase limits, Cohron said, will simply pay others to buy the drug. “We’ve got to schedule pseudoephedrine. It’s the only reasonable alternative out there.”

Similar laws in Oregon and Mississippi have not noticeably reduced meth use, but they have dramatically cut down on the number of dangerous and toxic meth labs, he said.

Gov. Steve Beshear said he is “conflicted about this issue. Meth ravages families and unravels communities, and we must continue our efforts to decrease its manufacture and use. On the other hand, virtually every Kentuckian has had a cold or allergy that could be treated with a common cold medicine which happens to contain pseudoephedrine. I am troubled by the possibility of forcing families to spend more money on a visit to the doctor in order to get a prescription for these relatively minor health issues.”

Last year, however, when Jensen’s bill was awaiting a vote in the state Senate, officers of Beshear’s Kentucky State Police were outside the Senate chambers seeking votes for Jensen’s bill. Beshear has previously said he might support such a bill if it exempted liquid forms of the drug which cold and allergy patients could buy but which aren’t compatible with the manufacture of meth.

True suggested the task force take a look at persistent felony laws, something opposed by most prosecutors who often use the threat of an enhanced sentence to wrangle plea deals from defendants. Jensen suggested the task force instead review the penal code as it was passed in the mid-1970s and examine sentencing enhancements lawmakers have tacked on over the years in addition to the PFO law. He said many of those are never even used and prosecutors often don’t know they exist.

Christian County Commonwealth Attorney Lynn Pryor wants the task force to push legislation to require uniform data collection on gangs, something she says is becoming a problem in Kentucky. She said Department of Corrections data indicate there are gang members incarcerated from 108 of the state’s 120 counties.

But Corrections Commissioner LaDonna H. Thompson said DOC doesn’t specifically track gang members. It tracks members of “security threat groups” which include several types of offenders, including gang members.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort

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