FRANKFORT - Commonwealth's attorneys and county attorneys descended on Frankfort yesterday to unite in sending a message to a subcommittee of the Commission on Sentencing which will be meeting to consider recommendations that would take the teeth out of felony statutes which punish criminals for committing more than one felony within a five-year period.
The commission on sentencing, which is spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Steve Pence and University of Kentucky law professor Robert Lawson, is considering several options which are aimed at cutting down on the number of inmates housed in Kentucky prisons. Chiefly they will be recommending that persistent felony offender laws be changed to such a degree that only armed robbery,murder and first-degree crimes could be tracked and used to enhance sentencing on future offenses.
Attorney General Greg Stumbo was in Prestonsburg on Monday and commented on the issue, saying, "This is one of those rare instances where Democrats and Republicans will agree on an issue." Stumbo noted that less than 4 percent of the state's budget goes to prisons and suggested that tobacco tax increases would be a better avenue for supporting the penal system.
Stumbo hosted the annual prosecutors convention in Louisville last month and said that the commission's recommendations were "a hot issue." Prosecutors would be handcuffed by such a law from obtaining guilty pleas from defendants who commit a second felony within five years of a felony conviction.
In fact, most prosecutors don't prosecute persistent felony offenders, preferring to use the law to obtain pleas. The proposed change, they say, could lessen their bargaining powers with criminal defendants should the measure be passed by the legislature.
Stumbo added that under the proposed change in PFO law, burglars, drug traffickers and anyone charged with a second-degree crime could conceivably commit the same crime 101 times and still receive a probated sentence.
Commonwealth's Attorney Brent Turner added, "It would be a huge blow to our office and other felony prosecutors in terms of our ability to protect the public from career criminals."
Turner went on to note that voters should feel free to contact their government representatives about the issue and let them know, "We don't want dangerous criminals on the street."
Stumbo, who serves on the commission, noted that some of its points are valid and said he would endorse a recommendation to start felony theft at $500 rather than the current $300 due to inflation. He also declared that he was amenable to measures that would limit jail time for nonviolent offenders but confessed that he could not countenance revising of PFO statutes and cited that statistics have borne out that increased incarceration and laws that enhance sentences for habitual offenders have resulted in a lower national crime rate.
Everyone interviewed about the commission's meeting doesn't expect the issue ever getting to a vote. The general feeling amongst prosecutors and law enforcement is that politicians wouldn't want to risk offending voters by softening their stance on crime.