If you’re arrested in Kentucky, whether you get out of jail before trial differs wildly depending on which county you’re in. That’s according to a new report by the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, which found stark disparities between counties for people offered pretrial release without financial conditions, as well as between counties for people who are offered affordable cash bail.
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy published the report Tuesday after reviewing 217,273 cases of people who were arrested in 2018. The report analyzed county-level data from Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts, and looked at whether people involved in a case were offered non-financial pretrial release, or were offered and could afford cash bail.
More than two-thirds of people arrested in Martin County in Eastern Kentucky were released before their trials without financial conditions, while only 5 percent of people arrested in McCracken County in Western Kentucky were released under similar conditions.
Researchers found that nearly everyone — 99 percent — arrested in Hopkins County in Western Kentucky offered cash bail was released pretrial. At the other end of the extreme was across the state in Wolfe County, where only 17 percent of people offered cash bail were able to pay it.
The findings for Jefferson County were mixed. On average, 40 percent of the people studied statewide were released with non-financial bonds; in Jefferson County, that was higher at 53 percent. But of the people offered cash bail, only 26 percent could afford to pay it, below the Kentucky average of 39 percent.
When people languish in jail, it can jeopardize their jobs, relationships and health. Amanda Hall, the ACLU of Kentucky’s Smart Justice Field Organizer, said the KCEP report emphasizes how pivotal pretrial cases can be.
“The same crime in two different counties can have very different results when it comes to your freedom, if you’re given financial bail, if you’re held pretrial — even sentencing,” Hall said. “I don’t think you can really call it a justice system because there’s nothing ‘just’ about that.”
Calls and emails for comment from Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet were not returned at the time this story was published.
Kentucky’s criminal justice system has challenged some advocates and organizers.
According to the nonprofit Vera Institute, the commonwealth is one of the few states where the jail population increased in 2018. Part of that is due to stiff penalties for low-level offenses, and has prompted the state to put more of its prisoners into county jails.
When asked why cash bail rates across counties are so different, KCEP Senior Policy Analyst Ashley Spalding said it depends on the circumstances. Some county judges may set a higher cash bail, while others might not offer cash bail at all.
But when it comes down to it, Spalding said vulnerable communities are the ones most affected.
“Only people who can afford to get out are getting out,” Spalding said. “That creates a situation where low-income people and Kentuckians of color are disproportionately harmed by this pretrial system.”
Spalding said cash bail reform could address some of the high incarceration rates and jail sentences for people in Kentucky. In Jefferson County, some organizations are working towards that reform. The Bail Project, which opened its first Kentucky site last year in Louisville, has bailed out hundreds of people charged with non-violent offenses. The Bail Project’s site manager and local jail experts talked about the topic on June 7 for WFPL’s In Conversation.