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(Update) 'Three Strikes' Bill Would Put Repeat Offenders Behind Bars For Life

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Update: This story has been updated to include response from ACLU.

A state lawmaker has proposed sentencing those convicted of three or more Class A or B felonies to life in prison without the opportunity for parole.

Rep. Gerald Watkins, a Democrat from Paducah, said by the time someone has committed three severe felonies, they’ve missed the window to change their behavior.

“They are not going to take advantage of the opportunities to be productive citizens when they get out of prison,” Watkins said. “They usually just graduate to more and more violent crimes as they go through the system.”

The proposal would apply to those already convicted of at least two Class A or B felonies or capital offenses. Felonies resulting from the same incident wouldn’t be counted as multiple convictions.

Many other states have “three-strike” laws that enact mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of multiple felonies, though penalties range in severity. Kentucky already has persistent felony offender laws that dole out longer sentences to those convicted of multiple felonies within a five-year window.

Kate Miller, advocacy director for ACLU-Kentucky, said that Kentucky’s criminal justice system is already restrictive and prisons are “bloated” with people who haven’t committed serious crimes.

“Mandatory minimums don’t make any of us actually safer,” Miller said. “What they do is put further burdens on the justice system, the individuals that are directly impacted as well as the taxpayer.”

According to a U.S. Justice Action Network poll from early this year, 75 percent of Kentuckians think judges should be able to use discretion to impose a range of sentences instead of having a system of mandatory minimum sentences.

“Local juries and judges know the community and are a better system to have in place than this sort of broad one size fits all policy,” Miller said.

Although Watkins said his bill would put more people behind bars in Kentucky, he said he intends to propose legislation aimed at reducing the state’s prison population by diverting those convicted of drug possession into treatment programs rather than incarceration.

“To me, if it’s personal possession, they don’t need to be in prison, they need to be in treatment,” Watkins said.

Watkins proposed a bill during this year’s legislative session that would have required mandatory treatment and community service to people convicted of possessing certain drugs or paraphernalia.

The legislation also would have reduced the penalty for possessing some drugs from a Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

The legislative session starts Jan. 3, 2017.

This story has been updated

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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