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Decline in Kentucky Coal Revenues Drives High Incarceration Rates: Study

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If Kentucky’s incarceration rates continue to rise at the rate they have since 2000,  every person in the state will be behind bars in 113 years, according to the Vera Institute of Justice .

The stark estimate was provided in a study intended to underline how heavily the state relies on local jails to for even relatively minor offenses. 


“The per diem money that the state DOC [Department of Corrections] sends counties, in turn, has incentivized and subsidized small counties to build bigger jails, deepening political alignment around increased incarceration and creating the space to accommodate it,” the report said.

The high incarceration rate is driven by the fall-off in revenue from coal revenues in economically depressed and environmentally devastated Eastern Kentucky which has crippled local governments’ ability to deliver core services, said researchers.

As a result,  they argued, many counties have deepened their reliance on incarceration as an economic “solution.”

For decades in eastern Kentucky, coal kept the lights on. But through the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, mining jobs decreased as a result of automation and mountaintop removal—an extreme method of strip mining that removes the tops of mountains to get at the coal deposits, then dumps what the industry calls “overburden” into surrounding valleys.

Now jails and prisons “keep the lights on” in Kentucky, according to the study.

“The money that the state pays out for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” researchers said.

In Harlan County, for example, coal severance payments dropped from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016. At the same time that coal revenues dried up, the state’s criminal justice policies subsidized and incentivized the expansion of jail capacity at the county level.

Between 2011 and 2018, the number of people held in local jails in Kentucky under state jurisdiction increased 39 percent, the study showed.

During this same period, the number of people held for the counties continued to increase.

Asked why there were so many people in the county jails, an eastern Kentucky public defender said, “My impression would be that most of them are there, not yet convicted of anything, or picked up for failure to appear, that sort of thing.”

The report was written by Jack Norton and Judah Schept.

A full copy of the report can be found here. 

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