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Investment, not criminalization and incarceration, will move Kentucky forward

In April, State of the South held its third convening, True South Central Appalachia. Over two days communities gathered for candid conversations on the past, present, and future of Appalachia and to answer the question, what would the South look like if equity became a shared Southern value?

Following the event, we invited panelists and participants to reflect on their experiences. We’re honored to share with you this reflection from Kaylee Raymer, Policy Analyst at Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.


If Kentucky were a country, it would be the seventh most incarcerated place in the world — with more than 21,000 people held in county jails, 65% of which are over capacity, another 10,400 in state prisons, and an additional 63,000 Kentuckians on probation or parole.

Many factors contribute to Kentucky’s high rates of incarceration and system involvement, including an inequitable cash bail system, lengthy sentencing and harsh penalties that criminalize poverty and addiction. Fortunately, policy solutions exist to help Kentucky safety reduce incarceration and its harms, all while increasing safety and well-being in our communities.

Safety net investments will lead to fewer Kentuckians behind bars

 Around half of the people awaiting trial in jails are there solely for the lowest-level charges, including drug possession, which in most cases, is a felony offense. Research shows that community-based drug treatment programs are more cost-effective than incarceration and better at reducing overall crime

The expansion of Medicaid is another way to reduce violent and property crime. One study credited this to the ability to access substance use treatment while another attributed the crime reduction to the ability to access health care generally.

And while research remains mixed on the best solutions for directly intervening in violence, according to experts,evidence-based practices include: improving access to early childhood education, investing in familial supports, enhancing the physical environment (such as improving the quality of buildings, increasing green space and lighting), strengthening peer relationships, reducing financial stress and supporting mentorship and positive activities for youth.

Changes to harsh cash bail, criminal penalties also necessary

 While investing in community support is crucial, it must happen while reducing criminal laws that bring people in contact with the criminal justice system and lead to incarceration in the first place. To do this, Kentucky needs to address pretrial detention and eliminate wealth-based detention, modify punitive laws such as de-felonizing drug possession, and remove barriers that make it more difficult for Kentuckians to move on with their lives once they exit the system. The General Assembly also needs to stop passing unnecessary criminal laws.

Kentucky’s pretrial system – which determines whether a person charged with a crime waits for the resolution of their case behind bars or at home – is 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. Currently, most Kentuckians in jail are held simply because they cannot afford to post bond. Aside from completely eliminating cash bail, Kentucky could also limit the number of offenses for which bail can be set, and pass a speedy trial law that ensures those held in detention do not wait for extensive periods of time for their cases to be resolved.

Additionally, Kentucky must modify punitive laws that lead to increased incarceration. To begin, Kentucky could fully legalize cannabis possession and other misdemeanor offenses, as well as defelonize drug possession.

A less-frequently discussed part of the criminal legal system is community supervision, or probation and parole. With so many Kentuckians on supervision, it cannot be left out of the reform conversation. Kentucky must remove automatic supervision conditions that are not income-informed nor case-specific and that make it easier for individuals to be reincarcerated for technical violations. Kentucky must also consider automatic expungement to improve housing, employment and educational opportunities.

As the understanding of substance use disorder, mental illness, and the impact of incarceration evolve, it is time for Kentucky lawmakers to act by investing in community supports over increased criminal penalties and incarceration.