Vera Institute of Justice Releases Report on the Criminalization of Poverty in Kentucky

The report explains how economic restructuring, a punitive criminal legal system, and flawed reforms led to an incarceration boom in the state.

August 9, 2023

Contact: Nico MacDonald,

[Frankfort, KY] In recent decades, the commonwealth of Kentucky’s carceral system has exploded in size, fueled by policies that criminalize poverty and substance use while prioritizing punishment over public safety, according to a report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera).

Through interviews, archival research, and data analysis, the report shows how the events of the past half century have shaped Kentucky into a state where criminalization has become the de-facto response to poverty and substance use, and how the dismantling of these systems poses a threat to the financial viability of counties.

As the coal and manufacturing industries declined and brought about increased joblessness, the opioid and overdose crises ravaged the entire state, especially in the regions that industry left behind. The draconian legal system punished those affected by these changes, filling jails and prisons with people held on drug-related charges, and trapping people with substance use issues in a web of probation, parole, and pretrial supervision programs.

From 1985 to 2018, Kentucky’s overall jail and prison incarceration rate more than tripled, and the rate at which people were on probation and parole skyrocketed, increasing five-fold. Countiessimultaneously faced with declining revenues from the loss of industry and the mounting costs of incarcerationhave come to rely on payments to hold people for the Kentucky Department of Corrections in county jails to sustain their budgets. This practice has incentivized a jail construction boom: since 2004, 38 counties expanded their jails, 14 counties built new jails, and four counties invested in both expansion and new jail construction.

“It’s no wonder Kentucky has the second-highest jail incarceration rate in the United States, and the seventh-highest rate of community supervision,” said Monica Smith, associate director of policy and advocacy at Vera. “The state’s system of crime and punishment is tilted toward a regressive policy of warehousing those who are victims of the state’s opioid crisis and economic re-orientation in jails and prisons.”

Counties have also come to depend on a complex web of criminal legal fees, fines, and privatized probation to fund courts, jails, and law enforcement agencies. These fees and fines are simply too much for many to pay, and coupled with strict and difficult conditions of supervision imposed by the courts, they leave people unable to escape from the criminal legal system for years, often resulting in additional jail time.

House Bill 463, passed in 2011, was meant to reduce overall penalties for drug possession, create paths for people charged with possession to stay out of jail and prison, and ensure more people would be released pretrial. But rollbacks to the drug law reforms and new criminal penalties for low-level drug offenses have reinforced criminalization as the primary response to substance use. Further, judges have continued to use their discretion to detain people pretrial on unaffordable bail.

Today, following historic declines in the number of people incarcerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, both jail and prison populations are on the rise across the commonwealth. A jail taskforce is currently considering the issue of whether and how to overhaul jail incarceration statewide.

This report provides concrete recommendations for lawmakers to reform the criminal legal system. Now is the time to reduce the harms caused by incarceration and supervision systems in Kentucky and broaden people’s access to community-based resources.


About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit