Why are so many Kentuckians behind bars?

Many factors contribute to Kentucky’s high rates of incarceration and system involvement, including an inequitable cash bail system, mandatory minimum sentencing and harsh criminal penalties. These problems, all of which can be addressed though policy changes, have resulted in a system that saw incarceration rates rise so fast between 2000 and 2019 that, if allowed to continue at the same rate, would see every person in the state behind bars in 113 years.

Punitive criminal state laws

  • Kentucky criminalizes far too many low-level offenses, including cannabis possession, criminal littering and public intoxication. Kentuckians can also be jailed for failure to pay fines and fees assessed for jail boarding, court costs and probation and parole.
  • Kentucky still treats many simple drug possession cases as felonies. Between 2013 and 2016, convictions for low level drug possession increased by 71%. The result was 102% growth in the number of drug possession cases sent to prison between 2012 and 2016.
  • Kentucky’s drug trafficking laws are very harsh, in part due to the broad legal definition of “trafficking” that can include sharing drugs or the sale of a very small quantity of drugs between individuals who use them. In recent years, penalties for such small-scale “trafficking” for heroin and fentanyl have increased significantly.

Pretrial detention

  • Kentucky’s pretrial system — which determines whether a person charged with a crime waits for their day in court behind bars or at home — is arbitrary, unfair and rife with injustice. It is a system where people who have money can get out, and people who do not must remain behind bars. The decision to be released or detained has serious consequences for people, their families and all Kentucky communities. Research shows that pretrial incarceration is associated with numerous harms to individuals and families and contributes to jail crowding, which is dangerous and also costly, all while failing to make communities safer. Individuals who remain incarcerated pretrial are more likely to lose a job, plead guilty even when innocent and be found guilty if their cases do go to trial.
How criminal behavior is legally defined and enforced
Punitive criminal state laws

Mandatory sentencing minimums

  • Mandatory minimum sentence enhancements have been one of the greatest contributors to Kentucky’s large incarcerated population. Kentucky’s Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) law is a punitive sentencing policy that emerged during the beginning of the so-called War on Drugs. While originally intended as a measure to deter crime and target “major” criminals such as “kingpin” drug dealers, PFO has instead resulted in more Kentuckians locked up for longer periods of time.

Probation and parole system

  • Rather than being incarcerated in a jail or prison, many individuals convicted of lower-level offenses serve their sentence or a portion of their sentence under probation, parole and other types of “community supervision.” These programs require strict adherence to rules such as drug testing, drug treatment programs and regular mandatory meetings with a corrections officer. If a person on probation or parole breaks a rule, even if it doesn’t involve participating in a new criminal offense, they can end up behind bars.
  • In 2016, 61% of all prison admissions were the result of supervision failures. More recent data confirms that probation and parole revocations result in thousands being incarcerated each year.