FRANKFORT, Ky. — Faced with a fast-growing incarceration rate, Kentucky is moving forward with a plan to keep some pregnant women out of jail for nonviolent offenses.
The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow women facing low-level drug or similar charges to get into rehabilitation as they wait for their cases to move through the court system. It also could apply to women already convicted of those offenses.
The measure, already passed by the Senate, awaits Gov. Matt Bevin’s signature.
State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the initiative will help mothers and children.
“We have to understand that incarcerating women is different than incarcerating men, and there have to be differences to treat them properly,” said Adams, a Louisville Republican.
Bill supporters estimate at least 200 women could qualify for entry into rehabilitation centers. They would have to complete substance abuse treatment, stay out of trouble, show up for court appearances and have no contact with any alleged victims or potential witnesses at their trials.
For those awaiting trial, prosecutors would decide whether to proceed with their cases if they comply with all conditions, Adams said.
Kentucky’s surging female inmate population is 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.
One group, Volunteers of America Mid-States, is more than doubling its bed space in Louisville for pregnant women needing treatment, said Jennifer Hancock, its president and CEO. The group also is seeking state support to help start a treatment program in southeastern Kentucky, she said. Top lawmakers are trying to reach a budget agreement.
Demand outpaces treatment space for pregnant women, Hancock said. Moving pregnant women into treatment can reap cost savings for taxpayers, she said.
“And the most effective way for that to happen is for her to be in treatment, not incarcerated,” she said.
The bill also would require state corrections officials to ensure that jails housing state prisoners provide adequate nutrition for pregnant inmates. Those jails also would have to provide adequate hygiene products and undergarments for female prisoners. It also would prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates during childbirth.