Rural jails in Kentucky are increasingly relying on income derived from payments for holding state prisoners in county facilities, according to a new report by a think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform.
To address overcrowding, states make payments to counties to hold convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. States save money, and counties get an extra influx of cash.
In rural Kentucky, the report’s authors warn, the dynamic speaks to a perception that incarceration is a tool for economic development. The reliance on income from state prisoners is particularly stark in cash-strapped counties suffering from a decline in another major form of revenue, the coal excise tax.
“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that relies so heavily on local jails to hold people who have been sentenced to prison,” said Jasmine Heiss, outreach director at the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored the report. “This has deepened political and social alignment around prison,” she said. “In the coal fields, the political and social alignment has the additional context of the decline of the coal industry and needing to turn to another industry or source of revenue.”
Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the nation. As of February, 2019, Kentucky had more than 23,000 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 prison beds available, the report said. The state’s solution to overcrowding is to pay “per diem” fees to county jails to house excess inmates. The state pays eligible county jails $31.34 per inmate per day for food and medical expenses, roughly half of what the state spends to house per inmate in a state prison.
Among all states, Kentucky houses the second highest percentage of state inmates in county jails, at 49 percent.
According to the report, the number of people held in local jails for the state increased by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. West Virginia falls seventh, at 18 percent. Ohio does not hold state inmates in county jails.
Jack Norton, one of the report’s co-authors, said that despite policies aimed at reducing Kentucky’s prison population, incarceration continues to grow at an “alarming” rate. “If the incarceration rates continue to rise in Kentucky at the same rate is has since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years,” Norton said.
Despite the mathematical impossibility of continued growth, the report said many county officials, particularly in rural counties, consider increasing jail capacity a solution to budget woes.
Knox County, in southeast Kentucky, has plans to build a new 350-bed jail. The report notes the current Knox County jail has space for 36 inmates but regularly holds 100 people.
“The state prison system is pushing people down to the county jail level, which is incentivizing counties in Kentucky to build bigger jails in order to take advantage of the per diem payments that the state DOC gives to county jails,” Norton said.
Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, has seen its population decrease, but its incarcerated population has risen by 1,500 percent since 1978. A lot of that increase, the report says, is from prisoners sentenced in the state system. A Harlan County official told the Vera Institute nearly two-thirds of the county jail budget, or $1.8 million, comes from state payments for housing inmates.
Judah Schept, Norton’s co-author and a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the per diem payments for holding state inmates were particularly important in the state’s eastern coal fields, where budgets once boosted by coal severance taxes were flagging.
“The money that the state pays for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” the report said.
Coal production began to decline decades ago, but around 2011, cheap natural gas caused a steep decline in coal production in eastern Kentucky. The decline in coal production meant drastic cuts to many local budgets, which have long relied on the tax on mined coal that the state distributes to mining counties.
Harlan County, a traditional coal county, saw its severance tax payments drop from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016, according to the report.
Depending on Growth
The report’s authors urged county officials to be wary of relying too heavily on payments for housing state prisoners. If the state’s criminal justice policies change and the prison population begins to decline, county jails could be left footing the bill for unnecessarily large jails, even as the loss of per-diem revenue causes further hardship to local budgets.
“Rather than pursue policies that would address [over-incarceration] in some way, that would reduce the number of people behind bars,” said Heiss, “this quiet jail expansion around the state enables this limiting of the political and moral imagination around over-incarceration. The only solution that is being pursued is to provide more and more beds.”
As the federal government and states across the country pass legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has continued to rise. Legislation has been introduced in Frankfort that could reduce the number of people jailed before trial, potentially reducing the the state’s reliance on counties for bed space. Previous versions of the bill have been introduced but not passed.