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Vera Institute of Justice “People in Jail and Prison In 2020” Report Documents Efforts to Contain Covid Outbreaks Curtailed by Recent Rebound in Jail Populations

Frankfort, KY (January 27, 2021) – Kentucky jail and prison population declined dramatically in 2020, but local jail populations began to rebound in the second half of the year, while the decline in state prison populations slowed, a report by the Vera Institute of Justice revealed.

The report – People in Jail and Prison in 2020 – studied jail and prison populations across the country, and documented historic changes triggered largely by the COVID-19 pandemic and occurring amid a national wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and accompanying demands to transform the criminal justice system in the United States.

The report documents a 20 percent decline in Kentucky’s total local jail and state prison population between January and September 2020 (from 36,368 to 29,230 people). By the end of December 2020, the total number of people behind bars had increased slightly to 28,982. Kentucky’s total prison incarceration rate dropped 19 percent between end of 2019 and late 2020, more than neighboring states like Ohio (10 percent decline), Indiana (8 percent decline), and Tennessee (12 percent decline), but less than West Virginia (37 percent decline). Kentucky’s prison incarceration rate remained the tenth highest in the nation.

Most of the decline happened in the first half of the year as law enforcement officials made far fewer arrests and booked fewer people into jail, while other justice system actors increased the release of people detained before trial and serving shorter sentences.

Between June and September 2020, however, the overall jail and prison population has risen 2 percent, with jail and prison trajectories moving in opposite directions. The number of people serving felony sentences in state prisons declined an additional 8 percent and the number of people serving felony prison sentences in jails declined an additional 3 percent between June and September 2020 after an initial decrease between June 2019 and June 2020 of 9 percent and 19 percent respectively.  In contrast, local jail populations jumped by 22 percent in between June and September 2020 after decreasing by 36 percent between June 2019 and June 2020. The backsliding on jail reductions is worsening overcrowded and unsafe conditions at a time when COVID-19 cases continue to spiral across the state.

“Many jails have already begun to refill, and prison declines have diminished, showing the fragility of decarceration,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of Vera’s “In Our Backyards” Initiative. “The return to the status quo has meant the continued criminalization of poverty during a global pandemic, with a money bail system that puts a price tag on freedom. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately devastated Black and Brown communities, and the enduring harms wrought by the criminal legal system only compound the suffering of Black, Brown and poor people.”

“With Kentucky having one of the highest rates in the nation of children who have had a parent incarcerated, it’s especially troubling to see incarceration rates rebounding with COVID-19 still spreading. We know from the numbers that many people – especially women – are incarcerated for lower-level offenses,” said Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “Now, more than ever, we need to apply creative solutions to holding people accountable and addressing underlying substance use so children don’t lose their parents to incarceration and we don’t jeopardize people’s health.”

Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest mortality rates during the pandemic. Over the past ten months, two out of every five people incarcerated in Kentucky tested positive for COVID-19, with a death rate five times the state average, according to statistics kept by the state. In one state prison, as many as

“Many of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 have been tied to prisons and large jails. Despite the historic drop in the overall number of people incarcerated, the initial decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, Senior Research Associate for Vera and lead author on the report. “The COVID-19 pandemic that transformed daily life in the United States brought the dehumanizing and life-shortening nature of incarceration further into light. Jails and prisons have been, and continue to be, devastated by a virus that spreads in close quarters.”

In Kentucky and across the country, rural communities with the highest rates of jail incarceration saw their incarceration rates rebound the most sharply in the second half of the year. While public officials, advocates, and organizers have built a powerful movement toward decarceration in the state’s largest cities, rural communities are left behind.

“Vera’s report underscores the need for a critical assessment of the role jails play in rural economies. The disproportionately high rates of rural jail incarceration indicate the urgency of reform of the pretrial detention and money bail systems,” said Amelia Kirby, Project Manager of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, “The scourge of COVID-19, coupled with the limited health care resources in so many of our rural counties highlight the inequities of the incarceration system, both nationally and in our own communities.”

Rural counties in Kentucky continue to incarcerate people at double the rate of major cities and their suburbs. Nationally, three out of five people incarcerated in local jails today are in smaller cities and rural communities, although that number is more than four out of five in Kentucky. At the beginning of the pandemic, rural jail incarceration rates decreased significantly; however, from June to September 2020, rural jail incarceration rates had increased 10 percent.

“It’s troubling that incarceration in Kentucky’s county jails is ticking back up after the initial decline in response to COVID-19. Our governor and state Supreme Court did what was needed in the spring and summer, with sentence commutations and the expansion of pretrial release,” said Ashley Spalding, Research Director at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy,  “But we are now headed in the wrong direction, and additional action is needed to immediately protect incarcerated Kentuckians and the communities they call home. In the longer term, we need to build on the declines in incarceration we have seen are in fact possible.”

“The large decline through the first part of the year shows dramatic decarceration is possible across the urban to rural spectrum, and further decarceration is necessary,” Heiss said. “The early 2020 decrease in Kentucky’s prison and jail populations should galvanize support for reforms during this year’s legislative session.”

The accompanying policy recommendations released with the report focus on measures that state and local authorities can take to further reduce jail and prison populations including expanding pretrial release, reducing arrest, reducing sentence and community supervision lengths, expanding the use of non-custodial sentences, providing services and resources to people released pretrial and post-conviction, and reducing court, jail, supervision, and other criminal justice user fees with an eye toward eliminating all forms of criminal justice debt. These policy measures should center race equity. The recommendations also urge authorities to do everything in their power to protect the dignity, health and safety of incarcerated people while they remain behind bars, to prioritize incarcerated people’s access to COVID-19 vaccines, and to provide incarcerated people with an informed choice with respect to decisions about vaccination.

Vera researchers estimated the national jail population using a sample of 1,558 jail jurisdictions and the national prison population based on a sample of 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prisons are under state or federal jurisdiction and primarily house people serving felony sentences, while jails are generally under local jurisdiction and primarily house unconvicted people in pretrial detention and people serving misdemeanor or low-level felony sentences.  More information about the methodology used can be found on page 10 of the report.

The full People in Jail and Prison in 2020 Report can be found here.


About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.