While there has been significant progress in the areas of juvenile justice and reentry, Kentucky continues to struggle with high incarceration rates and prison overcrowding. Kentucky has the nation’s ninth highest incarceration rate. In the last five years, the Kentucky’s prison population has grown 32 percent.


A significant factor driving Kentucky’s prison population is the continued increase in the incarceration of low level, nonviolent offenders, particularly drug and property offenders. In 2016, 65 percent of new admissions were incarcerated for nonviolent drug or property offenses, and nearly half of these individuals had no prior felony record. In just five years, the number of new admissions for Class D felonies (the lowest felony class) has risen 38 percent, and the number of people incarcerated for Class D felony drug possession has increased 102 percent. Due to overcrowding issues within the Department of Corrections, nearly half of the population are housed in local jails where there is limited access to rehabilitative programs.


Kentucky is also the second highest incarcerator of women in the United States, with an incarceration rate that is nearly twice the national average.  Since 2012, the female inmate population has grown 54 percent, with 85 percent of the female population incarcerated for a Class D felony offense. During this time, the percentage of females incarcerated for felony drug possession increased 140 percent, and the number of female inmates incarcerated for a parole violation has doubled.  Of the total female inmate population, 65 percent are serving a sentence for a nonviolent offense.


As far as the overall effectiveness of community supervision, 61 percent of admission to the Kentucky Department of Corrections are for supervision revocation, and 96 percent of parole revocations are the result of a technical violation. In fact, only 36 percent of those under supervised release are successful in satisfying the conditions of their release.


In 2017, the Right on Crime campaign launched in Kentucky, and in doing so, hired Julie Warren as a full-time State Director to advocate for conservative criminal justice reform policies for the Bluegrass State.


Recent Reforms

On the adult side, Governor Matt Bevin created the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (“CJPAC”) to evaluate Kentucky’s criminal justice system and advance evidence-based reforms. CJPAC recommended a number of reentry reforms that became SB 120, which was enacted during the 2017 legislative session. In an effort to create more employment opportunities for offenders, SB 120 called for the removal of the blanket occupational licensing measures that disqualified applicants with felony convictions. Instead, a licensing authority must demonstrate a direct relation between an applicant’s past criminal conduct and the occupation for which he/she seeks a license. The bill also creates a mechanism for challenging the licensing authority’s determination. Certain violent crimes will carry a presumptive relation to any occupation for which a license is required.


The bill also focused on job training, and authorizes state officials to enroll in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) which is to be funded by a grant from the US Department of Justice. The program allows Kentucky Department of Corrections to “lease the labor of state prisoners” with the prisoner’s consent.  In turn, the prisoner will receive job training and fair compensation toward their restitution or other financial obligations.


SB 120 also provides options for those struggling to pay their court fines and fees. No longer will an arrest warrant be issued for an individual who fails to pay court costs. Instead, a notice to show cause will be served, allowing the court to determine if the individual is indigent or willfully failed to pay. If the former, then the court has a number of options, including work release, adjustment of fees in accordance to a sliding scale set by Kentucky Supreme Court, waiving the costs, or setting up a payment plan.


Since many offenders re-entering society have a history with substance abuse, SB 120 creates a 4-year reentry substance abuse pilot program that includes two phases: The first will focus on education and increased monitoring of participants that includes three drug screens per week.  The second phase is “self-motivating” and continues monitoring/rehab with increased focus on employment and job/skills training.  The participant is on probation the entirety of the 12-month program. The program requires regular evaluations of the participants, their individual success, and overall success rates.


As the Kentucky Department of Corrections so aptly points out, a “majority of offenders are coming soon to a neighborhood near you,” and re-entry must be approached as “a second chance to make a first impression.” With skills training, the removal of employment barriers, and improved substance abuse treatment and monitoring, SB 120 affords offenders the opportunity to make the most of their second chance.


In 2016, Kentucky reformed its expungement laws to allow a person to petition to have their first qualifying Class D felony conviction vacated and expunged (HB 40).  An individual may also petition to expunge multiple qualifying felonies arising from the same incident. Upon successfully petitioning for expungement, the court will order the judgment to be vacated and the records expunged, which involves the deletion or removal of records pertaining to the expunged conviction and the restitution of voting rights. These reforms are important for those with a low-level criminal conviction, as it provides them with the opportunity to move forward with a clean record, which will in turn allow for more job and housing opportunities; two major indicators for a crime-free future..


On the juvenile side of criminal justice, in 2014, Kentucky enacted SB 200, which contained comprehensive reforms to its juvenile criminal justice system. The bill called for the development of “a fiscal incentive program to fund local efforts that enhance public safety while reducing juvenile justice system costs.”  It requires that 90 percent of the fiscal incentive program funds be used for “renewable, competitive grants to be awarded to judicial districts, or groups of judicial districts, for the purpose of establishing community-based sanction and treatment programs that provide alternatives to out-of-home placement.” The remaining 10 percent is allocated to judicial districts “to fund individualized interventions on an occasional basis to avoid commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice for a limited number of youth.”


SB 200 also established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council “for the purpose of providing independent review of the state juvenile justice system and providing recommendations to the General Assembly.” The Council is tasked with the “collect[ion] and review performance measurement data, and continue to review the juvenile justice system for changes that improve public safety, hold youth accountable, provide better outcomes for children and families, and control juvenile justice costs.”


The success of the reforms contained in SB 200 are still being quantified but preliminary results in terms of public safety and cost savings look very promising.  In the last two years, recidivism rates for juveniles in diversion programs decreased despite the increase in the number of juveniles receiving diversion as an alternative sanction. Also, commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice have decreased 43 percent, and 75 percent of those commitments were for felonies, which is an increase from 47 percent in 2012. Additionally, reforms are expected to save nearly $24 million the first 5 years, allowing 25 percent of the savings to be reinvested in community programs for juveniles.



Kentucky General Assembly Brings Big Changes to Criminal Justice Policy in 2021

Aubrey Vaughan Travis | April 23, 2021
Kentucky’s General Assembly just wrapped a productive 2021 legislative session. The 30-day session saw numerous criminal justice reforms passed, as well as the introduction of many bills that may…

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Aubrey Vaughan Travis | July 13, 2020
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There is a promising cultural shift across the business community in Kentucky to hire those needing a second chance after re-entering the workforce. Read more

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Across the country, lawmakers have undertaken a critical examination of their state’s pretrial justice system, particularly where cash bail is concerned.  Kentucky has led on this issue for decades,…

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Kentucky is seven weeks into its 2018 legislative session and there are numerous important issues that demand lawmakers’ attention.  Pensions and budgetary issues have, and will continue to consume…

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Julie Warren | January 15, 2018
This article by Julie Warren originally appeared in Lexington Herald Leader on January 12th, 2018. Gov. Matt Bevin’s Justice Reinvestment Work Group announced last month that, without reform, the state’s prison population is…

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Katie Greer | January 4, 2018
2017 marked a turning point for the United States. When President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, the federal government recognized what states such as Kentucky were…

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Julie Warren | September 14, 2017
They say the first step to fixing a problem is to recognize that there is a problem. I give a lot of credit to the leadership in Kentucky. They…

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In a recent interview with Kentucky Educational Television, Holly Harris, from Justice Action Network, hit the nail on the head in her refute of the effectiveness of the incarceration-first…
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