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Justice Secretary Tilley calls overcrowded jails a ‘powder keg’ in KY; too many lower-level felons jailed

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

Justice Secretary John Tilley called jail overcrowding the “true crises of our time” and a “powder keg” in Kentucky while testifying before the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government.

Overcrowding in jails and the high costs of incarceration were the topics of the legislative meeting.

Tilley, a former state lawmaker, blamed part of the problem on a state law passed in the late 1990s, which mandated the state send those convicted of lower-level felonies to county jails.

“Today, we have roughly 12,000 of those, which represents a little under half of our overall state inmate population,” he said.

Tilley told the panel overcrowding has been a problem for decades.

John Tilley testifying about jail overcrowding. (Kentucky Today photo)

“In 1970, we had we had about 3,000 people in prison and spent $5 million to house them. Today, we will spend about $650 million and our population is over 24,000, representing a 700 percent increase.”

He noted that Kentucky has the 10th-highest per-capita incarceration rate in the nation – and the second-highest rate for women – and that county jails were never built to house long-term inmates.

“We are dealing with a powder keg at the state level and the county level,” Tilley said. “There’s not enough time to discuss how much of a powder keg this really is. We are lucky, as a state, that something hasn’t happened which would draw national headlines.”

Rep. Deanna Frazier, R-Richmond, told the committee Madison County recently had to enact a 136 percent property tax increase to fund a new jail.

“We have over 400 prisoners in a 189-bed facility,” she said.

She said costs of operating the Madison County jail have skyrocketed. “The budget is $400,000 for housing outside prisoners and we’ve reached close to $1.3 million. Part of that problem is the state per diem of $31.34 for the state prisoners we have. But we are paying upwards of $75, plus travel and staff, to take our prisoners somewhere else.”

Tilley said a big part of the problem is people who are jailed awaiting trial, many of them on misdemeanors.

“In 2016, Kentucky held 37,000 pre-trial inmates spend an average of 109 days in jail, who were assessed as low to medium risk. Counties will tell you that cost, any way you slice it, is over $100 million. It would not be a threat to public safety to safely supervise or release those to the community.”


illey says bail reform is needed, which is a national trend, making it less a financial and more a public safety issue of whether someone should remain in jail before trial.

“Are they a risk to public safety or are they a risk of flight? That should be the decision, not whether they can write a $500 check.”

He continued, “In our system, someone who is alleged to have committed a grisly crime, as long as they can meet a bond amount, can be released. But someone who is alleged to have committed a non-violent offense, and can’t pay a $100 bond, can’t be released. We need to look for a fairer system that’s based on public safety. That will alleviate much of what is driving this discussion, this powder keg that I’ve referenced.”

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