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New opioid law likely to lead to longer sentences and more costs

A new crime bill has passed the Kentucky legislature and become law. It increases penalties for anyone "trafficking" fentanyl and heroin and removes the "peddler distinction" that reduced punishment for many addicted to these drugs. Instead, it makes even sharing among addicts any amount of heroin a Class C felony, which carries a five- to ten-year sentence.

This law is likely to be costly to taxpayers, as the Legislative Research Commission calculated that the current inmate population sentenced as Class D offenders would generate an additional $30 million costs if they had been sentenced as Class C and been required to serve additional time.

The bill's defenders claim prosecutors have "wide discretion" when charging minor drug peddlers, but that is likely to be of little value. No prosecutor ever wins accolades or, more important, reelection by demonstrating how careful they are in charging "drug traffickers," or how much restraint they exercise.

Prosecutors are likely to go for the maximum penalties, as that allows them to place more pressure on those accused, forcing them to plea to something. Prosecutors want to eliminate their risk of a loss of a trial, and threating a defendant with decades in prison is very effective. And this is why you need an attorney to provide an aggressive defense and knowledgeable advice before you accept any plea.

The opioid crisis is a real problem, but the most disheartening element of this story is this: States like Kentucky have long used incarceration as a purported deterrent for drug use.

And in spite of decades of evidence, most expensively demonstrated by the ever-growing budget for the Department of Corrections, more and longer sentences are ineffective at stopping drug use. Yet that is usually the default response by the legislature.

They claim this is necessary because "a" reform is not working, but it is unlikely that they have any evidence that proves the opioid epidemic is a result of insufficiently severe punishment. But we do have decades of evidence that shows increasing punishment has little effect on drug use beyond simple increasing the prison population.

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