A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky’s prison population expected to grow by 19%, cost additional $600 million in next decade

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The CJPAC Justice Reinvestment Work Group is projecting that, without significant legislative solutions, Kentucky’s inmate population will increase by 19 percent over the next ten years, overwhelming jails and prisons and burdening taxpayers with nearly $600 million in additional costs.

Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley, who chairs the group, said the growth is unsustainable given Kentucky’s pension crisis and other budgetary needs.

“We’ve reached a critical point that demands fiscal prudence and stronger accountability for both offenders and government,” Secretary Tilley said. “The good news is we have an opportunity to lower costs and improve public safety if we enact common-sense legislation next year. It’s time to bring stability and efficacy to our justice system.”

Under the Bevin administration, Kentucky enacted criminal justice reform earlier this year with Senate Bill 120, legislation to improve public safety and lower recidivism through stronger reentry programs. Gov. Bevin also supported and signed measures that allow expungement for low-level felonies and fair chance employment in the executive branch of state government.

Additionally, Gov. Bevin established the Work Group in August to perform a comprehensive review of Kentucky’s criminal justice system and advance policy changes that will safely lower the prison population while simultaneously improving public safety. The work is needed to bring Kentucky in line with the 31 states across the country that decreased both their prison populations and their crime rates between 2010 and 2015

Through an in-depth analysis of data from the Department of Corrections, the Work Group found that admissions to prison grew 32 percent in just five years, driven by low-level, nonviolent offenses. Sixty-five percent of admissions in 2016 were sentenced for drug and property offenses.

The Work Group also found that Kentucky imprisons women at a disproportionately high rate compared to other states. In 2015, Kentucky had the fifth highest female imprisonment rate in the country, almost twice the national average. Female admissions increased 54 percent from 2012 to 2016, driven by a 72 percent growth in admissions for Class D offenses, Kentucky’s lowest felony class.

At the same time, a 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 13 percent of Kentucky children have an incarcerated parent – the highest rate in the country at nearly double the national average.

To cope with aging infrastructure and overcrowding, state officials earlier this month announced plans to move 800 prisoners to a private facility in Lee County. Officials say that, if the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders continues to swell, Kentucky will be forced to consider expanding reliance on costly private prisons.

“Without changes next year, there is no question we will have to contract for two additional private prisons or build new prisons, costing taxpayers millions and providing little benefit to public safety,” Secretary Tilley said. “However, this Work Group has gone through a data-driven reform process that offers better solutions — not only to reduce recidivism but also to better protect our communities.”

Daniel Cameron, the spokesperson for the Smart on Crime Coalition, and a member of the Work Group, said of the findings “the Commonwealth must rethink how we are investing our resources. We are spending a significant amount of money incarcerating low level, nonviolent offenders when this funding could be directed at programs and services that have been found to hold offenders accountable while also helping to prevent reoffending.”

Rep. Jason Nemes, who is a member of the Work Group, said “our prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders with serious substance abuse and mental health problems, and we know that there are better ways to protect public safety and keep families whole than warehousing these people. The first step toward making resources available for treatment and rehabilitation is to take a serious look at our sentencing system, and decide how to prioritize our prison beds for people we’re scared of, rather than those we’re mad at or disappointed in.”

On Dec. 18, the Work Group plans to release a comprehensive set of recommendations to hold offenders accountable, create pathways to treatment rather than incarceration, and address the disproportionate number of women in Kentucky’s jails and prisons.

From Justice and Public Safety Cabinet

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