Kentucky incarcerated more than 32,000 people in 2022 in both local jails and state prisons, a 250% jump from the mid-1980s, according to a new website tracking mass incarceration in the Commonwealth.
Ashley Spalding, research director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said those numbers don’t include the thousands of Kentuckians being held in federal prisons, or who are locked into the criminal-justice system because they owe fines and fees.
“Kentucky criminalizes far too many low level of offenses including cannabis possession, criminal littering, public intoxication,” she said. “There are lots of ways that people end up serving long sentences.”
Black Kentuckians make up less than 9% of the state’s population but 21% of the prison population. Since 2011, Kentucky lawmakers have enacted 76 measure increasing incarceration and only 14 reducing it, according to a Kentucky Center for Economic Policy analysis.
Amid the proposal to build a $500 million federal prison in Letcher County, Spalding said there isn’t a track record of economic benefits, only harmful impacts on communities in the three other counties with federal prisons in eastern Kentucky.
“When we look at the three counties other than Letcher County that in Kentucky already have these prisons, we have not seen reductions in poverty,” she said. “We have not seen the kinds of economic improvements that are often touted.”
According to UnlockKY, Kentucky incarcerates 40% more people per capita than the U.S. average.