Study shows nonviolent offenders at heart of Kentucky’s jail overcrowding problem

Published 6:32 am Monday, September 30, 2019

Kentucky’s overcrowded jails are filled with nonviolent offenders who pose little risk, according to an analysis by the Administrative Office of the Courts reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The analysis looked at every defendant in custody on Nov. 1, 2018. It found that of the 6,796 defendants eligible for release, approximately 71 percent were being held on nonviolent Class D felony charges. The most common of those charges was drug possession. A distant second was theft.

The majority were classified as either low risk or moderate risk for failing to appear in court. They also were considered low risk for committing another crime.

Tara Blair, director of pretrial services, said the issue is more complex than bail reform. For example, most county jails don’t offer drug treatment programs for people prior to conviction.

“We have to come up with alternatives for people with substance use disorder,” Blair said.

One concern is that judges are keeping people with drug possession charges in jail for their own safety. Kenton Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders said judges are worried that defendants who are released will overdose and die, which has happened.

But Damon Preston, the state’s Public Advocate, said keeping defendants behind bars is not a solution.

“While jail may or may not provide temporary security against tragedy, jail does nothing to address an addiction and often makes the defendant more susceptible to an overdose upon release,” Preston said.

A pilot program called “rocket docket” allows criminal charges to move quickly through the courts, so more people can get into treatment more quickly.

But Sen. Robin Webb said at a recent legislative committee hearing on the subject that the rocket docket has its own problems.

The Grayson Democrat is a criminal defense attorney and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said the rocket docket means defendants are given a plea deal before all of the evidence has been presented or even collected.

“There is more to this than efficiencies and saving money,” Webb said. “You’re talking about constitutional guarantees and the right to due process.”

The state should consider other ways to get people into treatment and out of jail, Sanders said.

“Ohio has treatment in lieu of prosecution,” Sanders said. Other states allow police officers to make the decision to send people to treatment instead of charging them with a crime.

When the legislature returns in January, it’s likely prosecutors will push for changes to the law to allow deferred prosecution, particularly for misdemeanor charges.

Rep. Jason Nemes has authored several criminal justice bills. The Louisville Republican said it’s time Kentucky re-examines whether housing drug addicts in jails is a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

“We have open treatment beds in Kentucky,” Nemes said. “Housing these people in jails where there is no drug treatment, no rehabilitation, no career counseling is not effective.”