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Drug sentences excessive, expert says

LOUISVILLE, Ky., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Kentucky's 35-year drug war has led to unfair, "brutally harsh sentences," overcrowding the state's prison system with non-violent offenders, a study says.

That has helped push the state budget to the "outer edge of fiscal distress," said Robert Lawson, author of the 60-page study.

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The (Louisville) Courier-Journal reported Lawson's study is seen as a step toward revising drug punishments, which he claims have "failed miserably" by not distinguishing between minor offenders and major drug dealers.

Lawson, a University of Kentucky professor, criticized the practice of adding sentence upon sentence -- known as multiple enhancement. For example, Lawson said, a drug offender with an earlier felony conviction for a non-drug offense, such as writing a bad check; could face prosecution as both a repeat drug offender and a persistent felon. That would increase the punishment as a Class B felony to 10 to 20 years in prison.

J. Michael Brown, secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said the study raises issues that should be scrutinized by legislators.

Lawson's recommendations likely will draw opposition from politicians who fear appearing "soft" on crime, The Courier-Journal said.

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Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson disputed Lawson's findings.

"You have to understand where Lawson is coming from," Larson said. "He thinks government shouldn't have as its primary function the safety of the public, and I do."

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