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10 Takeaways From Frontline's Look at Criminal Justice and Louisville's Beecher Terrace


On Tuesday night, the PBS show Frontline aired a documentary that took a deep look at the costs and challenges of the criminal justice system—and the focus was on Kentucky and a specific neighborhood in Louisville.

In 90 minutes, "Prison State" told the story of four Louisvillians, including two  juveniles, who are entangled in Kentucky's criminal justice system.

All four were fromBeecher Terrace.

You can watch the documentary here.

The day "Prison State" aired, a man was shot and killed in the Beecher Terrace area.

As the credits rolled, the impression was given that two of the people in the film would go on to find success, while the other two would spend their life in and out of a system that even Mark Bolton, the director of Louisville Metro Corrections, said "doesn't work."

There were many issues raised that ought to draw people's attention. We made a list. Here they are.

1. Nearly 1 in 6 people living in Beecher Terrace will spend time in jail or prison. This is alarming, obviously. Some people in the documentary said most of their family members have been incarcerated. Beecher Terrace is less than a 10 minute walk from Louisville's jail—which also means it is not far from Metro Hall and Mayor Greg Fischer's office. "It's basically a regular ghetto," said Christel, a 15-year-old who was a focus of the documentary.

2. Kentucky spends $15 million annually incarcerating Beecher Terrace residents. Bryan Stevenson, a law professor at New York University, said in the documentary that the costs of incarceration take money away from services that are "designed to help people out of jail of prison," such as education, social services, health and human services and family services. 

3. Keith Huff is a "million dollar prisoner." Yes, you read that right. Huff, a Beecher Terrace native, has cost the state an estimated $1.1 million over the course of his life through his run-ins with the criminal justice system. He has been put into the state prison system  different times for a total of 27 years. "I do some stupid stuff," Huff said. "It's a cycle, it's a curse." Huff has been diagnosed as bi-polar and schizophrenic. 

4. "We're locking up people we're pissed off at," said Bolton, the director of Metro Corrections. "We ought to be using this space for people we are afraid of." He said point blank, "jails don't work, prison doesn't work." He said  incarcerating people for possessing small amounts of marijuana—or people who are mentally ill—does not help keep society safe.

5. Kentucky spends $50 million annually incarcerating juveniles, most of whom are non-violent offenders. Hasan Davis, the state's commissioner of  juvenile justice, said we could put all the kids in the juvenile justice system in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for a month, with room service, and it wouldn't equal up to what the state spends on incarcerating people younger than 18. According to the documentary, it costs nearly $87,000 a year to incarcerate one juvenile. A majority of the juveniles in custody are for status offenses, such as truancy, drugs, trouble at school or probation violations--not violent offenses.

6. Jails and prisons house 10 times more people who suffer from severe mental illness than mental hospitals. Keith Huff, once he was released, had 30 days to find the medication he needed to maintain his health. He didn't and eventually he was sent back into the state prison system. "When you don't have nothing, when you don't have hope, what the hell do you have?" he said. Prison reform policies geared toward early release of non-violent offenders opens up funding for providing treatment to those who need it, but don't have the option of exiting prison or jail.

7. Metro Corrections has room for 1,700 inmates, but "on any given day" houses up to 2,100 inmates. Bolton said inmates at the Jefferson County jail are being kept in the "nooks and crannies" and the jail in Louisville is "always over capacity."

8. "At any given time we are detoxing up to 90 people," Bolton said. He said since residential detox beds are always full, "more often than not, they come here, to jail."

9. The risk of recidivism is high—but not necessarily because released prisoners commit serious crimes, Stevenson said. Stevenson said "technical violations"—such as failure to pay monthly fines or failure to report to a parole or probation officer—often cause people to be sent back to prison for years or longer. Keith Huff said being released from prison isn't easy. "You kick me out on the street, tell me to 'do this, do that,' but at the end of the day I don't have clothes, I don't have food, I don't have transportation. What do you expect a man to do?"

10. At one point, the incarceration rate in Kentucky was nearly 3 times the national average, but the state was described in the documentary as a national model for decreasing incarceration rates. Over the past decade, Kentucky had a prison growth rate of 45 percent, the national average was 13 percent. The 2011 prison reform legislation is working to decrease prison and jail populations. Rep. John Tilley said the prison reform, though  controversial, will save an estimated $500,000,000 over 10  years. Since the prison reform law took effect, there were 1,300 fewer prisoners in Kentucky and almost 3,000 more spots in drug treatment programs.

Stevenson, the law professor at NYU, said the "big question" is if these declines can be sustained. "We recognize that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of these social problems," he said. "But we need a few years of steady decline before we can declare an end to an era." Tilley said for reform to be successful, we "need to distinguish who we're mad at and who we're afraid of."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.