FRANKFORT, Ky. — As jail populations increase in the commonwealth, so do jail expenses.
Members of the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary heard testimony on July 8 from the Vera Institute of Justice on how the average Kentucky county spent more than $3.3 million, or 15% of its budget, on jail expenses. In the 2019 fiscal year alone, Kentucky counties spent more than $402.3 million on jails.
Vera Research Associate Beatrice Halbach-Singh said that Kentucky’s overall jail population shrank 28% last year due to efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
According to the presentation, this showed how money is saved when people who are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses and who pose no threat to public safety are allowed to wait for trial at home.
“This rapid reduction shows that reducing the jail population safely is possible, and in fact, if every county maintained the reduction it saw in 2020, the estimated cost savings statewide would be over $30 million annually,” Halbach-Singh said.
Kentucky’s rural counties have the highest jail populations and spend the most on jails. They also spend a greater share of their total budgets on jail costs compared to other types of communities and have seen these numbers increase in recent years, Halbach-Singh said.
Halbach-Singh also noted that while some counties spend more than half of their budgets on jails, one county spent as low as 3%. The type of jail and revenue sources are major factors in this data. Some counties only house local inmates while others also house state and federal inmates. Juvenile facilities and juvenile offenders were not factored into this study, Halbach-Singh added.
Vera Project Director Jasmine Heiss covered recommendations on how to reduce the financial burden of jails on counties. Reducing jail bookings was one of the main recommendations.
“I think there is a real policy question of whether there are some offenses for which jail bookings in the future can continue to be avoided altogether, particularly with an emphasis on diversion or referral to services for people who struggle with mental health issues, with substance use and generally with poverty,” said Heiss.
Heiss also mentioned a bill filed in the 2021 legislative session, Senate Bill 223, which contained a provision to strengthen a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. Reducing the time an inmate spends in a local jail while waiting for trial also can reduce jail costs, Heiss added. The General Assembly did not vote on SB 223 in the last legislative session.
Following the presentation, committee co-chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, commented that he would like to see some reform on the ways jails choose communication service contracts for inmates.
“There ought to be competitive bidding for those things to drive those prices down for the taxpayer and the people who are footing the bill for the facilities we have around the state,” Westerfield said.
Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, said he supports the call to find a way to reduce costs for the state and local communities, but he wanted to know if the pandemic led to more crime going unreported and if that was also a factor in reduced jail populations.
“And as much as we all want to reduce costs, we have to remember our jails are the way they are because people’s committing crimes,” Blanton said. “We either got to stop people committing crimes or we got to do away with what is a crime … I just caution us to not get in too quickly here and that we take all the things into account as to why these numbers are lower during this pandemic.”
The next Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Aug. 5.
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