Kentucky’s imprisonment rate has skyrocketed in the last 35 years, according to a study released this month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In that time, the number of sentenced prisoners in state custody has climbed 391 percent—from 94 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 1978 to 462 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2013.
Just 12 states have had a greater increase in the same time period, according to the study.
Currently, the Kentucky correctional system has more than 21,000 people, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
In 1978, about 3,400 people were in that system, according to the study.
The reason for the surge of people serving prison and jail time is due to policy changes—not rising crime rates, said Robert Lawson, a law professor at the University of Kentucky and a principal author of the state’s penal code.
Lawson said changes in the penal code for repeat offenders created harsher penalties people with multiple convictions.
Before those changes, someone would need to be convicted of two separate felonies and serve two separate prison sentences before being subjected to elevated penalties that come along with persistent felony offender status, Lawson said.
“It was really regarded as a last resort punishment,” he said.
The new laws made it easier to tack on harsher penalties for subsequent convictions.
The number of inmates serving persistent felony offender sentences increased by more than 150 percent, Lawson said.
The budget demands for prisons have expanded with the prisoner populations, said Michael Mitchell, an analyst with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and co-author of the study.
The rising correctional costs can take state funds away from areas like education, Mitchell said.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Kentucky spent an average of about $10,000 per student, according to the state education department. In 2013, the state spend an average of about $18,000 per inmate, according to the corrections department.
Since 1986, Kentucky lawmakers have increased spending on corrections by $362 million (adjusted for inflation), according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study.
The current department of corrections general fund budget is just more than $472 million, according to the corrections department.
Some states have pushed through reforms that have aided in reducing prison and jail populations, therefore reducing some expense, Mitchell added.
Lawson said Kentucky has not seen much success from such reforms.
Efforts to reform the system have been tried in Kentucky.
J. Michael Brown, the secretary of Kentucky’s justice and public safety cabinet, said last year that legislation passed in 2011 had helped reduce corrections population by more than 2,000 inmates.
But Lawson said reforms should focus not only on reducing populations, which can best be accomplished by addressing the persistent felony offender law, but reforms should also focus on increasing investments in the current population of prisoners.
He said the current system doesn’t “do anything for them.”
“There is very little in the way of educational experience or job training or drug treatment in the prison system,” he said. “In my opinion, all we are doing is making them worse.”