Post-pandemic, KY returns to world-high incarceration rate

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)

After a drop due to the COVID pandemic, new research found Kentucky is once again crowding more people into jails and prisons.

The Bluegrass State has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and some experts believe it is a direct result of state legislation keeping men and women locked up.

Carmen Mitchell, criminal justice policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, which produced the report, said the state's elected officials are not doing enough to solve the problem.

"If Kentucky were a country, it would rank seventh-highest in the world for the rate of incarceration," Mitchell reported. "We have right under 22,000 people in jails; about another 9,800 people in state prisons. This legislative session that just concluded didn't make any meaningful steps to address that."

Mitchell pointed out over the past decade, several factors are driving the state's incarceration levels, including locking people up for low-level drug felonies and property crime. High rates of pretrial detention are another factor. The report noted Kentuckians remain in custody when they cannot afford bail.

Mitchell explained, like many states and countries around the world, Kentucky's incarceration levels were reduced due to pandemic health concerns, but the decrease did not last.

"We saw a major drop in the jail population, especially in pretrial capacity," Mitchell recounted. "And unfortunately though, we've been climbing back up ever since then. So, we've once again gotten back to the point where our incarcerated population in jails is exceeding even the capacity and number of beds."

In 2021, bills were passed to limit no-knock warrants and raise the dollar amounts for making some crimes felonies, but Mitchell argued the 2022 session appears to have reversed the trend.

"We pass punitive legislation at a rate of about six-to-one, with respect to legislation that might redress, address, incarceration or justice involvement," Mitchell emphasized. "That's what we normally do, and 2021 was a good outlier, and we were hoping to build on that. But unfortunately, we kind of returned to 'business as usual.' "

She added she is convinced changes would be more likely if Kentuckians let their lawmakers know they feel criminal-justice reform should be a top priority.

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Written by Chance Dorland of KY News Connection.

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