Criminal cases in Franklin County Circuit Court – indictments, pleas and sentences – fill the better part of a full page in this newspaper every week, despite Frankfort’s being a mostly tranquil place with little violent crime.

Phillip Shepherd, one of two judges who presides over those cases, estimates that 90% of his docket stems directly or indirectly from drug abuse and addiction. That’s correct: 9 out of 10. Even property crimes and the rare violent crime almost always trace back to drugs.

And because the court docket’s not getting any shorter, count Shepherd among the growing chorus of voices who say it’s time to begin treating the drug epidemic – especially opioid abuse – as a public health problem rather than one that will get fixed in courtrooms and jails.

Shepherd, in a compelling talk to the Rotary Club of Frankfort this week, expressed cautious optimism that the required sea change in public policy – one that will be expensive on the front end but could reap huge savings for taxpayers down the road – is coming.

That’s partly because criminal justice reform is decreasingly partisan. Law-and-order conservatism that brought mandatory sentencing, a prison construction boom and other misguided policies in the 1990s has yielded to a more informed, thoughtful assessment of a problem that’s gotten worse, not better. Count Gov. Matt Bevin and President Donald Trump among prominent Republicans who’ve embraced criminal justice reform. When Trump a few months ago stood beside U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to hail new federal legislation to stem the tide of mass incarceration, it was a rare reminder of the power of bipartisanship in a hyperpartisan era.

Undercovered by statewide media last week was a groundbreaking report by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce that Shepherd believes could be one of the most significant developments yet in the commonwealth’s approach to drug addiction.

The business group, whose membership is largely conservative, called for new state policies and laws that stress treatment over punishment for opioid abusers. Among the specific recommendations: Make all drug possession crimes misdemeanors. And increase state spending on substance abuse treatment centers, where an addict has a hundred times better odds of recovery than in a jail cell.

That investment in treatment will be expensive in the short run. But the long-term savings in law enforcement and incarceration will pay back taxpayers many times over. And Kentucky’s workforce and economy will be stronger as former addicts become productive citizens.

Here in Frankfort, think of what could be accomplished if we didn’t spend so much money between the city and county on drug-related law enforcement and corrections.

A few million for a new animal shelter? Piece of cake. Tens of millions to replace the Frankfort Convention Center? Not so farfetched anymore.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The State Journal. His email address is steve.stewart@state-journal.com

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