Common Ground: Incarceration Rates

02/26/2018 06:14 PM

Incarceration rates in Kentucky are hitting an all-time high. Jails in the commonwealth are filled with low-level non-violent offenders, mostly due to drug addiction, officials say.

Currently, Kentucky has the second highest female per-capita incarceration rates in the country, and more than 33,000 children have parents in jail.

Officials on both sides of the aisle have been calling for reforms—from Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, to Justice and Public Safety Director John Tilley to the Kentucky ACLU, all agree that the criminal justice system in the state needs to be reformed—and soon.

On February 22, Governor Bevin was joined by criminal justice advocates urging reforms in the state. Governor Bevin said the high incarceration rates are not only negatively impacting families in the state, but costing the cash-strapped state hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We are spending $600 million and rising. Also the unbridled growth is the spending we are putting into our criminal justice system. $600 million dollars, think about everything that is being cut right now in this budget session, of necessity. Why? Because people want to it? Of course not, because we have to balance the budget. And when you have to balance the budget, the money actually has to exist to pay for things,” he said.

The recent surge in prison population is in part due to the increase in drug addiction plaguing the commonwealth. As opioid addiction continues to increase—incarceration rates will continue to rise.

“We are now ninth in the county in per-capita incarceration, in a country that incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners yet only comprises 5 percent of the population. And why do we find ourselves here today? Because we have an incredible churn in our system of low-level non-violent offenders, driven by the scourge of addiction. We have been doing the same thing since 1971, and we can do better,” said John Tilley, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary.

House Bill 396, filed by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mills, and Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, seeks to address the growing number of incarcerations in the state by changing the way that low-level non-violent offenders are treated, sending this group of people to treatment facilities to get the help they need instead of behind bars.

The measure accomplishes this by reducing the penalty for possession of drugs such as cocaine and heroin from a felony to a misdemeanor as long as the drugs in possession are valued under $2,000. It also allows for offenders to be placed in treatment facilities as part of their probation.

This legislation has support from the bipartisan Kentucky Smart on Crime and Gov. Bevin. Of course, while there is wide support for criminal justice reform, not everyone is on board with this measure. A pair of prosecutors from Hardin County are urging citizens to oppose the measure, as they view easing the laws on drug offenders a risk to public safety.

House Bill 396 has been assigned to the House Standing Committee on Judiciary, and could be heard as early as Wednesday February 28.

Watch the segment:

Michon Lindstrom

Michon is a producer for Pure Politics. Michon comes to Kentucky from Springfield, Illinois where she served as the statehouse reporter for the NBC affiliate. During her time in the Land of Lincoln she covered the state’s two year budget impasse and the largest school funding overall in Illinois history. Pure Politics airs weeknights at 7 and 11:30 on Spectrum News. Follow Michon on Twitter at @MichonLindstrom or reach her by email at


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