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Study Shows Decline In Prison Population Doesn't Tell Full Story


A recent study shows Kentucky is one of just eight states that is holding more people in local jails than in state prisons. The problem is largely driven by the number of people in the commonwealth who are held in local jails while serving prison sentences.


Kentucky’s level of incarceration continues to grow at an explosive rate at the same time the nationwide trend is declining. Some counties are now considering expanding or building new jails to deal with overcrowding.


Jacob Kang-Brown is a researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice reform group that published the study. He said increasing the size of jails to deal with overcrowding isn’t a sustainable solution.

“That kind of big expansion takes us down a policy road that kind of gives us only really one tool to solve this problem and that tool is incarceration,” he said. “And when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”


Vera found that a decline in Kentucky’s prison population is likely the result of an increased number of state prison inmates serving out their time in county jails. The study reports that if Kentucky continues jailing people at its current rate, the entire state population will be incarcerated in 113 years. Jasmine Heiss is also with the Vera Institute of Justice. She is the director of outreach for In Our Backyards, an initiative exploring the shifting geography of mass incarceration.


“The phrase if you build it they will come shows up pretty ubiquitously to us throughout all of the research that has been done on this issue of expanding local jails,” she said.  

Heiss said the recent rise in Kentucky’s level of incarceration isn’t inevitable, but rather the result of specific policy and investment choices. She said counties could improve pretrial release, allowing people who are facing charges to prepare their case outside of jail. Heiss said finding better ways to deal with substance abuse and mental health disorders would also reduce some of Kentucky’s incarcerated population.


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