Criminal defense attorney calls for lighter sentences for some non violent crimes

11/06/2015 04:09 PM

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – An advocate representing criminal defense lawyers says that he would like to see lighter prison sentences for “non-violent” offenses because Kentucky’s prison population is swelling, and costing the commonwealth up to $500 million per year.

Ernie Lewis, of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told members of the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary at Northern Kentucky University on Friday that the state is spending more on incarceration than over before with little to no change in the crime rate. Lewis cited a study which said, nationwide in 1970; there were four violent crimes per 1,000 Americans. In 2014, that number dropped to 3.75 per 1,000.

“In 1970 in Kentucky, we spent $9 million a year on corrections, and incarcerated fewer than 3000 people,” Lewis said. “Since that time we’ve gone up from $9 million to half a billion. We’ve incarcerated from less than 3000, to over 22,000 with very little effect on the crime rate.

Lewis suggested less or no prison time for people who have been charged with flagrant nonsupport and theft of items valued less than $1,000 saying that having the state spends $22,000 a year to incarcerate these individuals.

Lewis would like to see the felony threshold for theft be raised from $500 to $1,000.

“Right now we have 758 inmates serving felony theft alone at a cost of $9.5 million,” Lewis said. “We’re spending $9.5 million to incarcerate thieves who stole 500 bucks.”

However, state Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, says the concern should be about public safety, and not how much we are spending on incarceration.

“I’m deeply troubled when what we seemed to be focusing on now is a reduction of folks in prison instead of reducing crime, keeping the public safe and protecting our law enforcement officers from habitual criminals,” Benvenuti said. “Tragically, we saw that this week in the shooting death of Officer Daniel Ellis, by somebody who should have been incarcerated 10 years for manufacturing methamphetamine.”

Benvenuti also opposes an across the board rule when it comes to punishing offenders.
He says that it should be up to the prosecutors as to what sentence should be sought.

“These wholesale changes where we say, this will not be your punishment, or where we broadly define what is violent and what is non-violent,” Benvenuti said. “Again, in the shooting death this week of Officer Ellis, a lot of people I’m sure, and legally would say, that individual’s previous offense, manufacturing methamphetamine, was non-violent, so why keep him in jail so long.”

Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, who previously served as an assistant prosecutor in Campbell County, says that it’s a choice of paying to keep the public safe or risk being a victim of crime from repeat offenders.

“Yes, we realize that it’s going to cost x amount of dollars to keep them incarcerated, but we’re saving the public from having to face them out on the streets,” Schroder said. “So, I think sometimes we’ve got to suck it up and pay and realize that we’re getting the better end by preventing them from committing more crimes.”


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