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Unpacking Bevin's Claims About Kentucky's Surging Prison Population

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

During the first televised debate of this year’s race for governor, Gov. Matt Bevin claimed that the state hasn’t expanded its prison population under his watch.

“We have expanded our prison population not one lick, I’ve made clear I’m not building more prisons,” Bevin said last week. “And the rapid increase that you ask about…happened under the previous governor and the governors before that. It has leveled off in recent years.”

Bevin is right that the majority of Kentucky’s prison population boom took place under previous governors. Historical data shows that back in 1978 under Democratic Gov. Julian Carroll, Kentucky’s prison population was 3,390. By 2007 at the end of Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration, that number had ballooned to 22,457.

But state data shows that there are more people locked up in Kentucky now than when Bevin first took office, or at any other point in state history.

Under Bevin’s predecessor — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear — Kentucky's prison population didn't grow as it did in years before, but jumped around. It decreased following the legislature’s passage of a criminal justice reform bill in 2011, dipping down to 19,636 in 2013. But from 2013 until August of this year, the prison population has steadily increased. That's through Beshear’s final two years in office and Bevin’s first term.

Bevin is running against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son, in Kentucky’s race for governor this year.

During the Paducah debate, Beshear responded to the same question about Kentucky's high prison population by saying the state should imprison fewer people for drug charges and instead put them into treatment.

"The state is locking up too many people. And it is absolutely draining money that we need to send to other places. And the driving force behind it is this drug epidemic," Beshear said.

"People who are suffering from addiction don’t need to go to jail, they need to go to treatment. They don’t need to get a record that’s going to hurt them getting a job in the future, they need to get the help that they need."

As of August this year, the state’s prison population sat at 24,016. According to a recent report by the Vera Institute, Kentucky incarcerates 540 people out of every 100,000 in the state, the tenth-highest incarceration rate in the nation.

That goes back to Bevin's other claim: that he hasn't built more prisons during his time as governor. That's technically correct, but the increasing prison population has led to overcrowding in state prisons and forced officials to house people who have low-level felony convictions in county jails, many of which are also overcrowded.

Kentucky is also spending more than it ever has on corrections — $628 million planned this year, up from $531 million in 2016 and $478 million in 2012.

Also, under Bevin’s watch, Kentucky has reopened a controversial private prison to help address overcrowding.

In 2018, the state transferred 800 prisoners from the Kentucky State Reformatory in Oldham County to the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville run by private prison company CoreCivic. A riot took place at the facility in 2004 under the same company’s watch.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Lawmakers have proposed sweeping criminal justice reform measures in recent years to try and address Kentucky’s surging corrections costs, but they haven’t made it very far in the legislative process.

Bevin appointed a task force to look at potential criminal justice reform measures three years ago. The panel has produced recommendations, like getting rid of Kentucky’s money bail system and easing the threshold for non-violent felonies including theft and missing child support payments.

In 2018, Republican Rep. Kim Moser proposed House Bill 396, which would have reclassified some non-violent drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, raised the threshold for what counts as felony theft and given judges more discretion to order counseling instead of prison time.

Officials estimated the legislation would have saved Kentucky $340 million in corrections costs over the next decade.

But the legislation failed amid pushback from prosecutors and judges.

Most of Bevin’s criminal justice reform initiatives have focused on post-incarceration. In 2017, Bevin signed a bill to expand workforce training for state prisoners, fight drug addiction and ease restrictions on state licensure boards that bar people with criminal records from getting a license or a job.

He has also signed two bills that expanded Kentucky’s expungement policy — allowing people to apply to clear a wide-range of Class D felonies once they complete their sentences, wait five years and pay a fee.

One of Bevin’s first actions in office was to rescind an executive order by former Gov. Beshear that granted voting rights to more than 180,000 people who had completed their punishment for low-level, non-violent, non-sexually-related felonies.

Bevin said that the issue should be addressed by the legislature, but it hasn’t been considered in recent legislative sessions.

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