A report published last week found that Kentucky’s incarceration rates are the worst in its region, topping Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The report also found that Kentucky’s ranking is among the worst in the nation, and one expert said it is a sign the state is moving in the wrong direction.
The report, released by the New York-based nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, used the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and state agencies. It used that data to compare states’ incarceration trends by the size of their jail and prison populations, the rates of jail and prison admission, and the rates of pretrial incarceration.
In addition to its dismal ranking compared to its neighbors, Kentucky ranked as the sixth worst state in the nation for incarceration when jail admissions rates, pretrial incarceration rates, and prison population rates were taken into account. Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst with the progressive nonprofit Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the reports’ findings were no surprise.
“Every legislative session there are numerous laws passed that actually increase criminal penalties,” Spalding said. “If more Kentuckians understood all these critical data points, then we might have more momentum as a state to move forward with reforms.”
- The jail population increased by 76 percent from 2000 to 2015.
- In 2017, white people made up 86 percent of the state’s population, and represented 76 percent of the prison population. Black people made up 9 percent of the state’s population, but represented 21 percent of the prison population.
- The number of women in jail increased 44-fold, rising from 83 women in 1970 to 3,727 in 2015.
- In 2015, pretrial detainees made up 43 percent of the state’s total jail population.
- Jefferson County reported the highest annual count of jail and prison admissions in 2015, but Grayson County had the highest rate of jail admissions. Bell County reported the highest rate of prison admissions.
Kentucky’s incarceration practices have led to overcrowded local jails, often filled with non-violent offenders, and unequal cash bail rulings between counties. Spalding said there is a lot of work to do to reform incarceration, but some southern states offer examples for a path towards reform in Kentucky.
“Mississippi and South Carolina have made significant reforms that have resulted in declining incarceration, and there have been budgetary savings and closures in facilities,” Spalding said. Those reforms include adding alternatives to incarceration and reducing the time served before parole eligibility.
“We can look to some other states from what they’ve already done, and we don’t have to be the worst on these measures,” she said.
Louisville Metro Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham said the report highlights Kentucky’s need for cash bail reform.
“Bail is really just an impact of poverty, because if you have the cash you pay the bail. If you have no cash, you stay in jail. And that just is not a fair and equitable system,” Durham said. “This is a great opportunity for [an] individual to take a look at the data, give a little bit of texture to it, and understand the impact of bail.”
Opposition to cash bail has mounted in Kentucky recently. More than a hundred people marched in Louisville this summer to protest cash bail, and local experts called for jail reform on WFPL’s In Conversation.
Spalding expects legislators will discuss incarceration reform when they meet for legislative session this January. A KCEP study of Kentucky’s rising incarceration rate, funded by a $10,000 Vera grant, is expected to be completed by then.