The Criminalization of Poverty in Kentucky How Economic Crises and Flawed Reforms Fueled an Incarceration Boom

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In recent decades, Kentucky’s carceral system has exploded in size, fueled by policies that criminalize poverty and substance use while prioritizing punishment over public safety. Amid significant economic restructuring due to the decline of manufacturing and coal extraction industries, local governments have attempted to turn their criminal legal systems into revenue generators. Entrenched financial incentives have served as powerful motivators for jailers, prosecutors, judges, and county commissioners to preserve the status quo of mass criminalization. During a time in which communities increasingly struggled with substance use disorders and needed real solutions to tackle this public health crisis, Kentucky’s lawmakers continued to pass laws that allowed prosecutors and judges to impose harsh penalties for drug-related offenses. Through interviews, archival research, and data analysis, this report shows the consequences of this system on people’s daily lives, in a state where criminalization has become the de facto response to poverty and substance use.

In 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky held a series of community conversations about incarceration and the criminalization of poverty in several communities in eastern Kentucky. These conversations led to ongoing work on these issues across the region. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky created this short film that delves into the work being done by organizers and educators around the state, including Higher Ground, AppalRed Legal Aid, Project Renew, among others. Watch the video here.

Key Takeaway

By providing a deep dive into the structural, political, and economic factors that led to an explosion in the number of people in jails, prisons, and under supervision in Kentucky, this report sheds light on the broader dynamics that have contributed to the growth of carceral systems across the United States.

Publication Highlights

  • Detaining thousands of people for low-level felony and misdemeanor offenses has pushed communities and the current carceral system to crisis points.

  • Policymakers need to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties related to poverty, drug use, and technical violations of supervision.

  • Lawmakers should invest in safe and reliable housing and homeless services, expand access to community-based treatment resources for substance use and mental health, and invest in better public transportation.

Key Facts