Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley Has a Plan to Address Jail Overcrowding

Sep 13, 2019

Credit Kentucky LRC

Overcrowding has become a major issue facing Kentucky's county jails.

The most recently available numbers from the Kentucky Department of Corrections show county detention centers collectively are nearly 5,000 inmates over capacity.

We spoke with Justice and Public Safety Cabinet John Tilley about the causes behind and ways to address this situation.


Thousands of state prisoners serving time for low-level felonies make up around 40% of the inmates taking up beds in county jails.

Tilley said this has been a concern for him since his time in the state legislature.

"It's mandated that we place Class D inmates in county jails, and that has resulted in 12,000 inmates being stacked in county jails," Tilley said.

Though the counties can refuse to take state inmates, there's little incentive for them to do so. State law provides pays each locality a $31.34 daily per diem for housing state prisoners, opposed to an estimated cost of around $60-70 dollars to keep offenders in state prisons.

The downside is that most county jails don't have the same resources to provide programming like substance abuse treatment and mental health services that state-run facilities do.

"Recividism is better from state prisons ... for those leaving prison than county jail and we think that's a direct result of the programming they get. And we know that those jails who use drug treatment, who use other programming can be very effective," Tilley said.

However, addressing the problems with overcrowding in county jails ill-suited to handle the amount of detainees would require more than just sending low-level felons back to state detention centers instead of farming them out.

For one, Kentucky's state prisons are within 300 people of reaching capacity themeselves. Meanwhile, the counties have grown to rely on state funding from receiving offenders as a reliable part of their budgets.

Tilley said there are ways the state could reduce the incarcerated population without harming local governments.

Some of those suggestions include raising the threshold for what the law considers felony theft from $500 to $2,500 as other states have done, prioritizing substance abuse and mental health treatment for some drug offenders, and doing away with cash bail.

Some critics have said raising the felony threshold would still mean jails will be responsible for housing offenders, except they would be serving county time for misdemeanors rather than felonies.

"That is a concern and we have come up with in conversation is a cost-sharing forumula. It would be my hope that we could arrive at a way of handling that inmate at a cost neutral way to the county," Tilley said.

This issue ultimately falls into the hands of state lawmakers. Tilley said Governer Matt Bevin's administration assembled the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council to come up with recommendations.

"And sadly, just recently as 2018, all 23 of those were rejected," Tilley said. It's something the secretary blamed on a lack of political appetite as the state dealt with pressing issues like public pension funding.

He said taking those steps, which have proven effective in other states, could help further alleviate the overcrowding issue.