Kentucky jails feeling the strain

Published 4:48 pm Monday, September 18, 2023

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Leaders of six Kentucky counties went to Frankfort recently with a clear message to state lawmakers: They need help to solve jail issues that strain their resources.

Speaking before the Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force, many of the judge-executives spoke about having facilities that are constantly housing more inmates than intended. More than a third of Kentucky’s 120 counties have chosen to eliminate their jails and send their inmates to neighboring county or regional facilities.

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Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor said jails are a “scourge” on county budgets and operations.

The county just south of Lexington, with a population nearing 100,000 residents, has a 194-bed facility, but there are approximately 450 inmates the county has in its system. The 320 now in the Madison County jail include more than 60 state inmates. Last year, the county spent more than $1 million in paying rent to other jails to house inmates it could not house, and Taylor said that did not include the cost for law enforcement to transport those individuals.

County leaders have considered proposals for a rehabilitation center to offset the strain on their jail. They’ve also considered spending $50 million to build a jail Taylor said would have 800 beds and be built with future considerations in mind. Residents vehemently opposed both proposals.

“I’m here today to ask for direction from you all,” he said. “Madison County is at a crucial point where we need direction from the legislative body of what we’re supposed to do about our current situation.”

One problem, according to the county leaders, is that their jails were built to serve as temporary housing facilities, but now they’re being tasked to hold inmates for far longer.

Menifee County in Eastern Kentucky closed its jail three decades ago. It had been sending its inmates to neighboring Rowan and Montgomery counties, but after those counties raised their rates, Menifee Judge-Executive Rick Stiltner told state legislators most of the county’s incarcerated population was sent to Lee County, which offered a cheaper rate.

Stiltner said some policies have a costly impact on counties. For example, he noted an April 2017 murder case where the victim was a year-old child. Two people were arrested a month later. One of the accused finally pleaded guilty on June 30, 2022. It cost the county $63,000 to house that individual elsewhere.

The accomplice in the case pleaded guilty in November 2018, but since she was supposed to testify in the other inmate’s trial, she was not sentenced until July of last year. That cost the county more than $43,000.

“When we’re waiting five years to try people, there’s something wrong with that picture,” he said.

Menifee County, which has a population of less than 6,200, had a jail budget of $375,000 for the 2022-23 fiscal year. Housing costs accounted for more than $250,000 of that, Stiltner said.

As a former state police trooper, Stiltner told lawmakers he sees a need for jails, but he sees several issues larger counties face, like drug abuse and addiction.

“There has to be a solution, and it needs to start at the state level,” he said. “Because counties really don’t know what they’re going to do.”