The number of incarcerated Kentuckians increased for the second consecutive year in 2022 after dropping to a 17-year low in 2020 due to pandemic-related measures, according to data released on UnlockKY, a new website tracking the state’s mass incarceration problem from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KyPolicy).
Kentucky incarcerated 32,351 people in 2022 in both local jails and state prisons. That’s a 10% increase from the pandemic low of 28,892 in 2020 and a 250% increase from the 9,247 incarcerated in 1985.
Kentucky’s total correctional population in 2022 was 95,479 people, including 32,351 incarcerated people and another 63,128 who were on supervision (probation or parole). If Kentucky’s correctional population was counted as a city it would be the state’s third largest, behind only Louisville and Lexington. Many thousands more Kentuckians are held in federal prisons and owe fines or fees and are not counted in the total.
The data tracker on UnlockKY shows a nearly 400% growth in Kentucky’s correctional population since 1985, when just under 20,000 people were incarcerated or on supervision. That number soared in the next several decades, reaching over 90,000 people in 2007 where it has remained ever since.
“Kentucky is one of the most incarcerated places in the world and the numbers are moving in the wrong direction,” said Ashley Spalding, Research Director at KyPolicy. “Building a Kentucky where all people can succeed, no matter their race or where they live, means addressing this crisis by changing the policies contributing to it. Fortunately, we know the policy changes that would begin to fix this and UnlockKY will serve as a tool to help achieve that goal.”
In addition to the data tracker, UnlockKY explains the inequities of the system — Black people make up 8.6% of the state’s population but 21% of the prison population — along with the harms of incarceration, the circumstances that led to Kentucky’s obscenely high incarceration rate and the policy solutions available to lawmakers who seek to take on this crisis. The website is a resource for academics, journalists, students, lawmakers and advocates and will be updated as new data becomes available.
UnlockKY contains information on:
- The causes of Kentucky’s incarceration crisis, including especially punitive state laws, the inequitable cash bail system and mandatory minimum sentences.
- The harms of incarceration, which makes it harder for people to recover from mistakes, fails to improve community safety, does nothing to address underlying community problems and costs Kentucky an immense amount of money that could be better spent on strategies that improve people’s lives.
- Policy solutions to this ongoing crisis, including bail reform, cannabis legalization, the elimination of persistent felony offender laws and investments in community supports.
The launch of UnlockKY comes after the 2023 General Assembly passed five bills that either create new felony offenses or increase criminal penalties for existing felonies and two reducing criminal penalties. This continues a trend that began after the passage of a significant criminal justice reform bill in 2011, which was meant to reduce the state’s high incarceration levels. Since that time and counting the most recent session, the General Assembly has enacted 76 laws increasing incarceration and only 14 reducing it, according to a new KyPolicy analysis.