Why is Kentucky’s jail population rising? State nonprofit puts four counties under microscope to find out
Published 10:07 am Tuesday, October 1, 2019
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy is taking a closer look at four counties to get a better understanding of the rising incarceration rates in the state.
Boyle County is one of the four Kentucky counties being studied by the KCEP for a report on jail overcrowding that could influence future legislation.
“We’ve been working on really paying attention to criminal justice-related issues for the past several years,” said Ashley Spalding, a KCEP analyst who is working on the study. “… There’s been a lot of attention on jail overcrowding in our state, and yet at the same time, not much has been done to address it.”
KCEP is part of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and it’s based in Berea. According to KCEP, it “seeks to improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians through research, analysis and education on important policy issues facing the commonwealth.” To accomplish that goal, it “produces research on timely issues; promotes public conversation about those issues through media and presentations; and advocates to decision-makers on the need for policies.”
Spalding said the statewide problem of overcrowded jails is being driven in large part by smaller communities — that’s something people may not realize. The KCEP study intends to “connect the dots” between the state-level problem and what’s happening locally.
“We want our report to inform policy generally,” she said. “We are still in the data collection phase, but whatever findings we do have about reforms that can happen at the state or county levels in order to address those issues, we’d like for our research to inform those decisions and those policies.”
Boyle County was chosen because 2017 data from the Administrative Office of the Courts shows the county had the lowest rate of pretrial release on non-financial bonds in the state. Since that time, Boyle has completed a comprehensive study of its criminal justice system and implemented some changes, which have resulted in a decrease in the jail population and an increase in release of defendants without financial conditions.
“That has been really interesting to learn about and it seems like there are some lessons to be learned for other counties,” she said.
Spalding lives in Madison County and said while she has been studying jails in Kentucky, her own county has landed in troubled waters over its jail. Madison County’s jail suffers from severe overcrowding; its fiscal court members have voted for a 139% percent increase in the local property tax rate to fund a $45 million jail facility that could hold between 900 and 1,000 people. That’s close to the size of the Fayette County jail, Spalding said.
The other counties chosen for KCEP’s deep dive include:
• Leslie County in eastern Kentucky, where overcrowding seems to be driven by a different factor — a very high percentage of state prisoners held in a county jail;
• Rowan County, which was in a similar situation to Leslie County, but has not built a new, “very large” jail to deal with the problem; and
• Barren County, which has one of the highest rates of pretrial release on non-financial bonds in the state, but still has overcrowding problems.
Spalding said KCEP wanted the counties it selected to have “geographic diversity,” as well as “diversity in terms of what the pressures are” driving jail populations.
Spalding has begun meeting with officials and those involved with jails and the criminal justice systems in all four counties to better understand how things work in each location.
“There’s a lot to learn,” she said. “Our goal is to do research and writing in the next few months, and release a report before the legislative session.”
KCEP’s research is being funded in part by the Vera Institute, which has an initiative called “In Our Backyards,” which attempts to educate the public about how rural communities, not urban ones are driving massive increases in incarceration in the U.S.