Politics & Government

Reduce jail overcrowding before a judge orders mass release, experts warn lawmakers

The Kentucky General Assembly must try to solve the crisis of local jail overcrowding, or else the courts could intervene in the next few years and order the mass release of inmates, lawmakers were warned Thursday.

“It behooves legislators to act on this while they still have the freedom to and it is not a federal judge dictating those things,” said Josh Crawford, director of criminal justice policy at the Pegasus Institute in Louisville.

The legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Local Government heard testimony Thursday from several experts regarding the state’s crowded jails and overall trends in incarceration.

The Herald-Leader reported this month that Kentucky dangerously overwhelms its local jails by using them to house more than 11,000 state inmates for whom there is no space in the state’s dozen prisons, all of which are full. The crowding — some jails hold more than twice their intended population — has led to deaths, serious injuries and a failure to rehabilitate inmates.

Crawford and John Wright, a professor of criminology at the University of Cincinnati, are preparing a study on Kentucky’s crowded jails for the Pegasus Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Louisville.

They told the legislative panel that three factors are to blame: the state Department of Corrections packing jails with state inmates; a swelling pre-trial population due to cash bonds set higher than poor defendants can afford; and misdemeanor penalties that are stiffer than they need to be for relatively minor offenses.

Eventually, they warned, someone is going to file a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court alleging cruel and unusual punishment and win the attention of a sympathetic judge. In 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state of California to cut 46,000 inmates from its prison population of 156,000, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the next year.

“They were ultimately placed in federal receivership to oversee the California Department of Corrections,” Crawford said.

Crime rates rose in California as a result of the sudden and sporadic release of criminal offenders from custody as mandated by the courts, he said. And the average population of a Kentucky jail — more than 120 percent of capacity — rapidly is approaching the 138 percent limit imposed in the California decision, he said.

Kentucky has 12,231 inmate beds available across 12 state prisons and a privately owned, for-profit prison in Lee County. The Pegasus Institute researchers said that one possible solution to jail overcrowding is adding 2,000 more prison beds combined with penal code reforms that reduce penalties when reasonable and steer more drug offenders into addiction treatment rather than a cell.

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“Compared to other states with similar sized populations, we’re about 4,500 beds short in our state Department of Corrections,” Wright said.

“I’m not suggesting we build our way out,” Wright said. “I am suggesting that we try to right-size the institutional capacity for the Department of Corrections.”

Jasmine Heiss, an analyst with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, told the legislators she agreed with the urgent need to reduce crowding in Kentucky jails. But Heiss said she doesn’t believe the state should build more prisons or expand existing facilities. Most of the United States has seen a steady decline in incarceration rates over the last decade, but not Kentucky, which continues to lock up its people more aggressively than most other places, she said.

“The rise of mass incarceration in Kentucky is still very much underway,” Heiss said.

The testimony drew mixed reviews from lawmakers. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said finding more space for state inmates would cost millions of dollars that Kentucky does not have.

“Any idea sounds good in a vacuum,” said McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill. “But my money says that if we were to go poll the citizens of the commonwealth and say ‘Hey, you know, we want to raise your taxes so that we can have more space for prisoners in jails,’ it probably would not poll well.”

After the hearing, the committee’s co-chairman, state Rep. Michael Meredith, said the legislature is responsible in large part for jail overcrowding because it writes the state’s criminal code and it passed laws requiring lower-level felons to be held in jails rather than building new prisons.

But it’s not clear what happens next, said Meredith, R-Oakland. The legislature is unlikely to find the money needed to add more prison beds, and past efforts to pass criminal justice reform measures have fallen flat in Frankfort, he acknowledged.

“There’s not going to be any simple solutions, so we’re going to have to look at a holistic approach,” Meredith said. “My final question for the presenters today had to do with substance abuse treatment and how do we better connect people with the services that they need. Because I think a lot of the offenses that we see — like the small-dollar thefts, the shoplifting — it’s driven by drugs. We have to address that root cause somehow or other.”

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John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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