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Community organizers call on judges to help alleviate jail crisis

120921 SURJ Press Conference_6
Louisville Showing Up For Racial Justice delivered hundreds of postcards calling for an end to cash bail to judges and prosecutors in the Hall of Justice.

Community organizers are calling on Jefferson County District Court judges to help alleviate the ongoing jail crisis.

In the past year, 11 people being held at Louisville Metro Corrections have died.

Advocates for incarcerated people have placed some of the blame on the jail’s large population and lack of staff.

“The jail is overcrowded, and instead of addressing those issues, city officials are pushing for a $300 million to $400 million jail,” said Carla Wallace with Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, one of the organizations that penned the letter. 

Wallace said a new jail would not solve the problem of people being incarcerated before trial. Additionally, she said the project would take years to complete, leaving the current crisis without a solution. 

This is why organizations like Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, VOCAL-KY and ACLU of Kentucky are asking judges to help.

“The District Court judges have a great amount of discretion on how they set bond, use of cash bail, unsecured bonds. They can help reduce the jail population and get people out,” said Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky.

The open letter to District Dourt judges reads: “We urge you to release every person appearing before you on an unsecured bond, unless that individual is found to pose a particularized risk of imminent serious danger to the community.”

“People shouldn’t be facing the horrific conditions in jail pretrial,” Wallace said. “They have not been found guilty of what they are charged [with], and should be able to go home to their families and await their trial and come back then.”

She said the jail is being used as a stand-in to address issues like addiction, homelessness and mental health problems.

“Those kinds of things are either health issues or a, you know, a judge being angry because somebody didn’t show up in court,” Wallace said. 

Options they’re asking judges to use instead of holding people at Metro Corrections include releasing someone on their own recognizance and using surety bonds, where someone can vouch for the person facing charges and assure they will appear in court.

Options like cash bonds often create a hindrance for marginalized people. 

Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice has worked toward bail reform, calling for limiting or eliminating cash bail, which they say causes more people to end up in Metro Corrections during pretrial. 

The letter addresses this issue, stating, “It is appalling that we arrest and hold people for failure to pay restitution they cannot afford. It is abusive to hold people as punishment for being poor, Black, or unhoused, or suffering from a mental illness or addiction.”

Organizers have called for reforms in the past, and a handful of judges have been responsive.

“We have some judges, luckily, on the bench who understand that we should not be holding people pretrial unless it's absolutely necessary,” Wallace said. 

She and the other leaders hope that this most recent death and a renewed call for change will sway even more judges. 

“Hopefully they will see the crisis we’re seeing and do whatever they can do,” Njuguna said. “Even just one or two of them doing what we ask could save a life.”

They aim to remind both judges and the general public of the humanity of people who are in jail.

“Even when someone has done a wrong, that person still deserves dignity and respect of their humanity,” Njuguna said. 

It’s essential to care on a human level about incarcerated people, Wallace said, and also to consider the financial cost.

“If instead we were investing our taxpayer dollars into affordable housing, in mental health care, in addiction services, youth services, we could see a community where people are thriving and that impacts everybody,” Wallace said.

Breya Jones is the Breaking News Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.