Study: Louisville jail continues to be overcrowded despite drop in admissions
Admissions to the Louisville jail have decreased in recent years, but that’s not having a huge impact on the overall population, according to a recent report from the City University of New York’s Data Collaborative for Justice.
The report, released last month in partnership with Pew Charitable Trusts, included jail population trends in Louisville between 2010 and 2019. It also examined similar trends at jails in Durham, N.C., and St. Louis. Researchers found that, while admissions locally dropped 22%, the average length of stay for someone incarcerated increased by 18%. That resulted in the average daily population decreasing by just 1%.
A snapshot of the Louisville jail’s population last October found the downtown facility was housing about 200 people more than it should.
Tad Hughes, a researcher at the University of Louisville who worked on the report, said the data has implications for criminal justice reforms focused on reducing arrests. He said efforts like Kentucky’s Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act — a 2011 law that mandated citations rather than arrests for some misdemeanors — aren’t necessarily addressing jail overcrowding.
“The idea that we can simply reduce admissions and therefore reduce jail populations seems not to be true, so understanding the complexity of these cases really helps us understand how we might find solutions to these problems,” Hughes said.
Hughes said the data could be helpful to officials looking to craft policy to address overcrowding at the jail.
That issue, along with Metro Corrections being understaffed by 15-20%, has become a top concern for Louisville officials in recent months. The Corrections union has described conditions in the jail as dangerous and “a dumpster fire.”
Earlier this month, the jail had its fifth in-custody death in less than two months.
Tracy Velázquez, who manages public safety research for Pew Charitable Trusts, said more extensive and reliable data can help inform policies that tackle these issues. Pew helped fund the study.
“To the extent that jail populations can be shrunk, it can help provide a safer environment for those who live there and work there, and reduce some of the impacts for those individuals and the community as well,” Velázquez said.
The Data Collaborative for Justice’s report said the increase in the average length of stay for incarcerated people was the main driver of unchanging daily population numbers.
Researchers attributed the longer stays to people being held on more serious charges. People whose bail was set at $5,000 or more also saw their length of stay increase by 54%, from 56 days to 92.
Criminal justice reforms over the last decade have done little to change racial disparities at the Louisville jail, the researchers found. Despite Black residents making up just 24% of Jefferson County’s population, they made up 39% of jail admissions between 2014 and 2019. Their average length of stay also increased by 21% during that time, compared to a rise of 17% for white residents.
Louisville Metro Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham confirmed in a statement Wednesday that internal jail data shows “a persistent trend [of] disproportionate minority confinement.”
Durham said Metro Corrections doesn’t determine who is admitted to the jail or when they get released. But he said Corrections officials did work to reduce jail admissions in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Director Dwayne Clark asked the judges, prosecutors and the public defender to review individuals in custody who were not charged with violent offenses or sex offenses and who could not afford to pay bond to determine whether those individuals could be safely placed under supervision in the community.” Durham said. “He assigned staff to assist by providing any data requested by the criminal justice partners.”
Between February and June of 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average daily number of people incarcerated at the jail dropped from 1,851 to 1,252, according to data presented to Louisville Metro’s Jail Policy Committee. The October 2021 snapshot, however, showed it crept back up 1,553.. Nearly 75% of the people incarcerated were being held pre-trial, meaning they hadn’t been convicted of a crime.