Politics & Government

Prison populations are falling in most states, but ballooning in Kentucky. Here’s why.

Prison populations are steadily declining across most of the United States, but not in Kentucky, where the number of state inmates rose to 24,136 by the end of 2018, according to two new studies released Thursday.

“We see Kentucky going up three straight years where you’ve had the highest prison populations in your state’s history ever,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

Further complicating Kentucky’s situation, nearly half its state inmates are housed in local jails, many of which are badly overcrowded, rather than state prisons that offer a full array of vocational and educational programs and addiction treatment. Jails are much smaller facilities in county seats that are meant to hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, not felons incarcerated for years.

Kentucky expects to spend $628 million on its Department of Corrections in the fiscal year that begins July 1, up 17 percent from four years earlier in a state budget already struggling to pay for pension contributions and Medicaid.

Other states are passing criminal justice reform measures that make it less likely someone who commits a non-violent, non-sexual crime will get a stiff prison sentence, Kang-Brown said.

“There have been some really successful reforms in a number of places that have been able to address prison populations without impacting public safety,” Kang-Brown said.

Gov. Matt Bevin and the General Assembly have talked a lot in recent years about “smart on crime” reform measures that could reduce the flow of bodies into prison and jail cells. But progress has been slow.

Lawmakers rejected a sweeping penal reform package in the 2018 legislative session that was intended to save taxpayers more than $340 million over the next decade. Among other things, the bill would have reduced assorted nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including first- and second-offense drug possession, so thousands of offenders could spend less time behind bars and avoid the lifetime stigma of a felony conviction. Similarly, it would have raised the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $2,000.

“The leading problem is a reluctance by some people to adopt ideas that seem ‘pro-criminal,’” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. “There’s just this reluctance there that’s been hard for us to overcome. It’s not universal. You can find good reform ideas in both chambers and in both parties. But not enough so far to carry the day.”

The Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the Corrections Department, is aware of the population problem and is working to address it, spokesman Mike Wynn said Thursday.

“The Justice Cabinet has taken every possible step to manage our population and lower recidivism,” Wynn said. “That includes streamlining the re-entry process, networking inmates with employers, strengthening substance abuse treatment and reforming probation and parole.”

“These efforts have produced results. Our latest 12-month recidivism rate fell from 32.2 percent in 2016 to 28.9 percent in 2017 — the first decline in nine years,” he said.

“Also, before the criminal justice reforms in 2011, Kentucky’s prison population was growing at nearly four times the national average and was on track to exceed 30,000 inmates as early as 2015. Today’s count was just under 24,000, so the reforms — which Secretary (John) Tilley sponsored — have been effective at stabilizing the population. But there is still more work to be done,” Wynn said.

The Vera Institute and the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics each released a report on Thursday studying slightly different years and data sets, but both came to the same conclusion: While most states saw a drop in their incarceration numbers over the last decade, matching a relatively low crime rate, Kentucky kept locking up more people.

Inmates waited their turn in line at the Inmate Canteen at the Blackburn Correctional Complex, 3111 Spurr Rd. in Lexington, Ky., Monday, June 15, 2015. Blackburn Correctional Complex serves as the Division of Adult Institutions’ largest adult male minimum-security institution providing care, housing, custody, control, and governmental services jobs to inmates. Several subdivisions are located adjacent to the nearly 500 acre facility. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Kentucky saw an 11.2 percent increase in its state inmate population from 2008 to 2018, compared to an 8.5 percent drop on average for the 50 states overall as well as the federal government, which runs its own prison system, according to the Vera Institute analysis. With an incarceration rate of 540 state inmates per 100,000 residents, Kentucky ranked tenth in the nation for putting people behind bars.

These numbers do not include inmates awaiting trial or serving local time in jails or federal prison inmates in Kentucky.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics offered its own insights, including the fact that Kentucky ranked second in the nation (behind Oklahoma) for locking up women, with 133 female inmates per 100,000 female residents.

Kentucky also ranked second (behind Louisiana) in its reliance on local jails to house state inmates, sometimes for years. In 2016, a legislative report concluded that Kentucky state inmates held in local jails are more likely to commit new crimes than state inmates held in prisons after they are released.

Many local jails don’t offer the rehabilitation programs that state prisons do, the legislative report observed. And state data shows that more than two dozen Kentucky jails last week were spilling over at 150 percent of their maximum capacity or greater, with inmates sleeping on floors and jammed into open areas intended for recreation and other purposes. The 48-bed Rockcastle County jail, for example, was holding 109 inmates.

“The number of jails offering programs has increased since 2012, but the number of programs offered is still low,” the legislative report said. “From 2012 to 2016, 25 jails did not report inmate participation in any (Department of Corrections) certified programs.”

Another finding by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: In Kentucky, only 58 percent of the 21,239 new prison admissions in 2017 were because of a new conviction in court. The rest were due to probation or parole violations.

By contrast, 69 percent of prison admissions nationwide were because of a new conviction in court, suggesting that, in Kentucky, probation and parole violations play a more significant role in incarceration than they do elsewhere.