If each U.S. state were its own country, Kentucky would have the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the world, according to a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative.
The report found that the U.S. incarcerates “716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country.” Kentucky was above the national average, with a rate of 948 people per 100,000 residents.
Many countries with high incarceration rates are facing large-scale internal conflicts. In the United States, though, this isn’t the case.
“If we compare the incarceration rates of individual U.S. states and territories with that of other nations, for example, we see that 36 states and the District of Columbia have incarceration rates higher than that of Cuba, which is the nation with the second-highest incarceration rate in the world,” the group reports.
Kentucky has a higher incarceration rate than Russia, Thailand, Panama and El Salvador.
State lawmakers have been trying to get a handle on the problem, but dramatic change is a long way away, experts have said. In 2011, the state passed a slew of reforms aimed at reducing the state’s prison population.
But problems persist. Last year, PBS Frontline reported on the state’s efforts. According to that program, Kentucky’s state prison population has “far outpaced the national average, rising 45 percent in the decade ending in 2009, compared to 13 percent nationwide.”
Preston Elrod, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, said Kentucky has been a prime example of the country’s penchant for incarceration.
“You know, for a long time, people in political life sold the public on this idea that we have to increase the severity of punishments in order to reduce crime,” Elrod said. “That’s how we do it.”
The cost of that philosophy has only recently gotten the attention of lawmakers. But Elrod said the incarceration rate — which was created by a mix of economic and political forces — is extremely difficult to untangle.
“People are starting to realize that they have to think differently about these things,” he said. “We are facing a significant crisis, and where are we going to go, I’m not sure.”
Elrod said his biggest concern is government officials’ process for crafting criminal justice policies, in which longstanding issues aren’t addressed while new rules are being written.
“The world where they develop law and policy about crime is often a world that is very divorced from the world where people are doing research and understanding,” he said.
Reforms could take the form of laws allowing for expungement for some offenders and restoring voting rights to some felons.
More change could be on the way, though. Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin has been pushing for criminal justice reform in the state.
“Voter restoration is the right thing to do; expungement is the right thing to do; signing a medical marijuana bill, if it were put in front of me, would be the right thing to do,” Bevin recently told Kentucky Public Radio’s Ryland Barton.
Still, Republican state legislators have given reform only lukewarm support in recent years.