LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If Kentucky wants to figure out why its incarceration rate is one of the highest in the nation, the legislature would be a good place to start, according to a new report.
Over the last decade, Kentucky's legislature has passed six times the number of bills to increase felony criminal punishments as it has measures to reduce prison populations, according to the Kentucky Center on Economic Policy report released Thursday.
Between 2011 and 2021, 59 bills increased or enhanced criminal penalties, while only 10 reduced criminalization or the state’s prison-going rate, the report said.
It’s one of several reasons why Kentucky has struggled to reach the prison population reductions promised a decade ago, when lawmakers approved HB 463, the state’s last big package of criminal justice reforms undertaken during a growing incarceration rate.
In addition, court systems haven’t fully embraced some reform provisions, the report said.
More than 30,000 people are in Kentucky prisons and jails, among the nation’s highest. The 2022 Department of Corrections budget of $626 million is a 72% increase from 2010, outstripping total general fund growth, with taxpayers footing the bill.
While other states have reduced prison populations by scaling back punitive criminal penalties fueled party by the “war on drugs,” the report said, Kentucky "continues to increase criminal penalties."
The report came one day after another group called on the legislature to pursue reform to reduce the number of people behind bars.
The Kentucky Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights on Wednesday issued a report urging the legislature to eliminate cash bail except in cases of a clear and identified danger to the community or an established flight risk.
“Kentucky holds too many nonviolent, low-risk offenders in county jails before their trials due to their inability to pay their money bail,” the group said, noting people are held for inability to pay bails as low as $250.
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In Kentucky in 2016, there were 64,123 defendants charged with nonviolent, nonsexual crimes jailed before trial because they could not afford their bail, according to a study of state court data by the nonprofit Louisville-based Pegasus Institute. They spent an average of 109 days in jail before ever having been convicted of a crime.
The debate over criminal justice reforms — though mostly aimed at nonviolent, low-level offenses — has nonetheless grown more heated amid a rise in fatal shootings in Louisville and cities across the country.
Kentucky Republican senators John Schickel, Danny Carroll and Kevin Bratcher in August wrote an editorial linking violence to reform efforts that in part reduced penalties for drug offenders.
They argued against the elimination of cash bail.
“Policymakers have reduced criminal penalties, and the governor released thousands of convicted felons out of our prisons and onto Kentucky streets using the COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse," they wrote. "Law enforcement personnel have been demonized and restricted in performing their duties. Then, as serious crimes increase, we wonder why. Quite simply, public policy is becoming increasingly soft on crime."
Yet the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy says while the state saw a temporary reduction from commutations and policy changes related to COVID-19, they expect the prison population will continue to rise without a policy shift away from ineffective, punitive measures.
They cited legislation in 2015 and 2017 that rolled back criminal penalties for low-level heroin trafficking and expanded trafficking’s legal definition to make sharing or selling any amount of heroin or fentanyl a minimum class C felony. Others created new crimes for behavior that is already criminal.
Such penalties are too often applied to drug offenses and disproportionately impact communities of color, according to Carmen Mitchell and other report authors.
Despite being only 8% of the statewide population, Black people make up 21% of Kentucky’s prison population.
Experts say high incarceration rates aren't simply a function of crime, but rather criminal justice policy choices.
While more comprehensive reform efforts have stalled in recent years, the last two years saw important changes including raising the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000 and expanding felony expungement rules to help people with prior convictions find jobs and housing and stay out of jail or prison.
The policy center report urged the legislature to take more steps such as reducing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and narrowing the state’s persistent felony offender law, which it said was one of the country’s broadest and most severe.
Several Republican lawmakers said they aren’t certain whether criminal justice proposals will gain traction in the legislative session that begins in January.
Chris Kenning is a statewide enterprise writer. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @chris_kenning
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Report: Kentucky lawmakers share blame for high incarceration rates