FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In a state struggling with a surging female incarceration rate, it is inevitable that pregnant women end up in Kentucky’s jails.
Looking for an alternative to locking up expectant mothers, some lawmakers are pushing a bill that would set conditions to transfer some pregnant inmates into rehabilitation centers. The proposal would apply to mothers-to-be awaiting trial on nonviolent charges, and is a recognition that many are in custody for drug offenses in a state overwhelmed by drug addiction.
“We have a shot at protecting that baby,” said bill sponsor Sen. Julie Raque Adams. “We have a shot at getting them into rehab. We have a shot at having them turn their lives around.”
The bill cleared its first hurdle Thursday when the Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced it. But concerns from some lawmakers who voted it out of committee showed that getting the bill through the GOP-led Legislature will be laborious.
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The measure is a response to the growing numbers of Kentucky women being locked up — part of a larger problem in a state struggling to find enough prison beds. Kentucky’s top public safety official has said the state’s prisons will run out of space by mid-2019.
The state’s female prison admissions shot up 54 percent in the past five years, fueling one of the nation’s highest female incarceration rates, said Adams, a Louisville Republican.
The state can’t afford the status quo, Adams said, so she introduced the bill to steer some pregnant jail inmates into treatment centers. To qualify, they could not be charged with violent or sexual offenses. They would have to reside at a rehabilitation center and complete treatment. They would have to stay out of trouble, show up for their court appearances and have no contact with their alleged victims or potential witnesses who might testify at their trials.
While in treatment, the pregnant women also could receive help to prepare them for motherhood and to steer them toward educational or employment opportunities.
Any violation of the conditions would land them back in jail.
“It’s not like you’re getting out,” said Renee Craddock, executive director of the Kentucky Jailers Association. “It’s you’re going to inpatient rehab and you’re going to get better, or you’re going to go to jail and you’re going to do the time for the crime that you committed.”
Craddock, whose group supports the bill, estimates it could apply to at least 200 pregnant inmates.
Shifting pregnant inmates into rehab is part of a larger effort to overhaul Kentucky’s criminal justice laws to curb growing prison populations taking a huge bite out of the state budget. Adams’ proposal won an endorsement from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin at a recent rally. The bill also would raise the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000 — another effort to check prison growth.
The proposal got some pushback from Sen. Danny Carroll.
Carroll voted against the bill and voiced concerns that it could start a trend to protect offenders from being held accountable for their actions.
“Where does it end?” he asked. “At some point, if a woman is arrested and she has a toddler at home, are we going to say, ‘Well, she needs to get out, too.'”
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, voted to advance the bill, but said he was concerned it could create dangerous consequences for drug-dependent women and their unborn babies. He worried the women could get away long enough to try to satisfy their drug habits.
“You may just put some drug addicts that can’t stop back out on the street,” he said.
The legislation is Senate Bill 133.