A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Post-pandemic, Kentucky returns to one of the highest incarceration rates in the world

By Chance Dorland
Public News Service

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.

Kentucky’s jails are again over capacity, with 21,831 people in jail at the end of April, and an additional 9,835 people incarcerated in state prisons, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. (Graphic from Adobe Stock, via PNS)

“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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  1. Heather Smittle says:

    Yes, my baby brother is 30 years old, they gave him ten years for shoplifting, second offense therefore they got him for burglary…. He shoplifted, he didn’t threaten anyone I or harm anyone…. He didn’t have a weapon. Simply got caught shoplifting at 22 years old and still sitting there today with folks who raped and killed their own grandma that got less time then he did. I’m so afraid by the time he gets out he will be institutionalized permanently and he will never get to learn how to function SOBER and maintain a healthy lifestyle. They are branding him as we speak.

    • William Clark says:

      Your brother is a victim of the system. The penalty does not fit the crime. I’m sorry for him and the family because of the injustice.

  2. Virginia Harley says:

    You act like he’s the victim here. He knew what he was doing was wrong. It was not a first time offense. Don’t enable him.

    • William Clark says:

      Yes he knew, he was still a kid. Are you saying you are happy that our system hands out that harsh a punishment for a non violent crime? Next thing you know they will slap you in jail for speeding, which technically they can if you are some many miles over the speed limit. Have you ever had a traffic ticket?
      The young man is probably learning more and about how to be a criminal than any kind of rehabilitation. That’s just the way it is. A very small percentage of inmates get the chance to rehab.. like education, learn a trade etc. . They have limited opportunities for inmates.
      I think it was harsh and injustices penalty considering the crime.

  3. Nancy Hutchinson says:

    Virginia, what you say may be true, but what heather is say is that 10 years is way to long of a sentence for the crime. No weapon, no one was hurt, that many years does NOT fit the crime. It does not make sense. We want our citizens working and paying taxes. Some need more help to do that than others.Those with drug or alcohol addiction need help and treatment for their disease. Try to be more compassionate.

  4. Lorrie Hill says:

    This is such a sad article. The poor cannot afford bail or good attorneys to assist them with a justice system that seems in need of serious attention.

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