Kentucky has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country. But state lawmakers ignored most efforts to address the issue and its root causes, instead passing measures that are likely to worsen overcrowding in jails and prisons.
While COVID-19-related efforts alleviated some jail and prison overcrowding, new analysis from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, shows carceral institutions are over capacity again — with 9,835 people in state prisons and 21,831 in Kentucky jails.
Carmen Mitchell is a criminal justice policy analyst and co-author of the report.
“A program called Administrative Release, which automatically released people from jail incarceration for certain convictions, and also commutations from the governor were state-level actions that made that reduction,” Mitchell said, referring to the mid-pandemic decrease. “We saw a huge drop in our incarceration population…without any impacts to public safety.”
Mitchell said instead of working to continue that trend, state lawmakers opted to pass 12 punitive measures that will likely worsen the situation over time.
“Bills that either create new felony crimes or expand or enhance definitions or sentences for already existing felony crimes,” Mitchell said.
She said Kentucky lawmakers missed opportunities to reform the carceral system, including several measures targeting the state’s Persistent Felony Offender law, which allows prosecutors to enhance felony sentences for people with previous felony convictions.
Mitchell added another bill was initially progressive — it aimed to increase educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated through the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship program. But she said the final version actually would have done the opposite, reducing those opportunities, and it failed to garner a vote.
“We saw a bill that would have placed limits on the amount of time people can spend detained in jail for being pretrial,” Mitchell said. “When we talk about what’s driving incarceration, and who is even incarcerated — a lot of the incarcerated population, people who are sitting in jail awaiting trial. These are people who’ve been charged with something are sitting in jail, most likely because they can’t afford bail to get out.”
She added that judges elected at the local level can do something about pretrial detention and cash bail — a major contributor to overpopulation.
“Even just county by county, for the same crime, people can get charged very different amounts of bail, just because you were arrested in one county instead of the other,” Mitchell said. “This really places a spotlight on why judicial races are so important, and why it’s important for people to pay attention to who their judges are.”