County jails look to state for direction
Published 3:31 pm Friday, September 8, 2023
Kentucky’s county jails are looking for relief.
Last week, six county judge-executives testified about the economic and population pressures on their inmate population to the Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force in Frankfort.
The task force, which was established during the 2023 legislative session, meets monthly to discuss various aspects of jails and corrections in Kentucky, including management, cost, adequacy and sustainability of existing facilities and incarceration data.
Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor kicked off its August meeting.
Taylor said that when he was elected in 2015, he knew that there was a problem with the county jail, but he didn’t know exactly what it was.
He launched a citizen task force to identify problems and potential solutions, including building a new jail, adding on to the existing jail or closing the county jail entirely.
“Quickly, that task force identified that we didn’t have a jail problem, that we had a drug problem,” Taylor said. “Eighty-five percent of people incarcerated were in drug-related crimes. We had an 85% recidivism rate at that time, and we probably had 350 to 400 inmates.”
Armed with this knowledge, Taylor’s task force put together a plan for a healing center focused on rehabilitation. However, the community pushed back, saying they didn’t want their tax dollars spent that way.
So in 2018, Taylor oversaw a plan to build a new jail to handle the number of inmates that needed to be housed. The jail would have included 800 beds and cost $50 million, requiring a tax increase to pay for it.
Again, the Madison County community nixed the idea.
“The fiscal court decided to rescind our ordinance of the tax increase,” Taylor said. “And since then, we’ve been housing individuals outside of the county, been spending millions of dollars a year because we can’t house them all.”
Madison County’s jail has 184 beds, but the county is responsible for 450 inmates. So, it has to transport many to other counties through contracted inmate housing, which Taylor said cost the county $1.051 million last year.
The county’s total budget is about $3.6 million.
Taylor told the legislative task force members that local leaders like him need some direction before moving forward.
“I can’t go and spend $50 million on a new Detention Center in Madison County if I don’t know what the state playbook is,” he said.
The other five judge-executives shared similar stories.
In Scott County, Judge-Executive Joe Pat Covington is also facing a drug epidemic.
However, with the limited square footage of the county’s current jail, there isn’t room to provide adequate programming opportunities to try to rehabilitate those who are struggling with addiction — about 70% of the jail’s population.
Building a new jail would be costly — about $54 million over 20 years — and would use funds that “could be used elsewhere to benefit our community,” Covington said.
“We need direction because with our growth in our community, the reality is sooner or later, we’re going to have to do something,” he added.
Covington said the legislature’s increase in inmate per diem from $31 to $34 has not made a significant difference in the difficulty in running his county’s jail.
Facing similar problems, Union County actually closed its jail a few years ago, said Judge-Executive Adam O’Nan.
In 2018, the maintenance costs for the then jail were “incredibly high,” including HVAC and roofing issues that would have cost from $1 to $2 million to fix.
The county couldn’t afford that or the construction of a new jail, which would have required $12-16 million, with a county bonding capacity of $16 million.
“I felt that was foolish to tie that entire amount into the building of a jail which might have our hands tied behind our backs should an economic development prospect come along,” O’Nan said.
So, the county contracted with Webster County to move all its inmates there, and in its first year of closure, cut its jail budget in half.
Recividism was a common concern during the task force meeting.
Menifee County Judge-Executive Rick Stiltner said that his county’s recividism rate is over 80%. He said that although he believes that some people belong in jail, some just need a little help to break the cycle.
“In my opinion, we don’t have enough programs when we’re seeing that we have the same drug issues Union County has, as Madison County, as Scott County, we all have the same issues,” Stiltner said.
“… There has to be a solution. And it needs to start at the state level because counties really don’t know what they’re going to do.”