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Kentucky think tank launches tool to track state incarceration

Jake Harper
Side Effects Public Media

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy is tracking the increase and causes of incarceration in the state through a newly launched website.

UnlockKY shows the steady increase of incarceration in Kentucky, using a collection of data spanning back more than 30 years. Since 1985, incarceration in the state has increased by nearly 250%. In 2022, over 32,000 people were incarcerated and over 63,000 were under probation or parole.

Researchers with the progressive Kentucky think tank hope the website will educate people about the negative effects incarceration has on citizens.

Director of Research at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy Ashley Spalding said she and her colleagues wanted to show the public the underlying causes for mass incarceration in a simple and accessible manner.

“We have access to a lot of data and research reports and we wanted it to be visually compelling to where it would reach different audiences than we would otherwise,” Spalding said.

Kentucky has the seventh highest rate of female incarceration in the U.S., and the state incarcerates 40% more people than the national average, according to data from UnlockKY.

The website also identifies the main causes for incarceration including criminal state laws for low level offenses. Convictions for low level drug possession charges in Kentucky increased by 71% between 2013 and 2016.

Spalding said it was important to include key data points on incarceration and present it in one place. She said the information for incarceration for each state from a national source may not always be up to date.

“This [website] was created by Kentuckians for Kentuckians,” Spalding said. “This was a homegrown website, where we are putting the key research points that specifically apply to Kentucky. [The information] is for the general public, academics, media and also advocates.”

According to UnlockKY, one of the main causes for mass incarceration in Kentucky is the state’s pretrial system. Those who are charged with a crime and don’t have enough money for bail must await their trial behind bars.

“We hope it clearly makes the case that this is a huge problem in our state and points to solutions, specific solutions in Kentucky,” Spalding said.

Some of the solutions proposed by UnlockKY include defelonizing drug possession and changing drug trafficking definitions to better distinguish possession from trafficking.

UnlockKy states those who spend time incarcerated before their trial are more likely to lose a job or plead guilty to a crime even if they are innocent. Overcrowding in jails poses risks for those incarcerated and is also costly towards communities.

Spalding said she and others hope the website will inspire people to get involved inpolicy reform and advocacy.

“People can see [incarceration] doesn’t have to be this and it's harmful that we invest so much in incarceration and not in Kentucky communities,” Spalding said. “They can click on policy solutions to see what our state legislature can do about it.”

Mason Galemore is a Murray State student studying journalism. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper. Since then has explored different publication avenues such as broadcasting. He hopes to travel as a journalist documenting conflict zones and different cultures. He remembers watching the Arab Spring in 2011 via the news when he was a kid, which dawned in a new age of journalism grounded in social media. His favorite hobbies are hiking, photography, reading, writing and playing with his Australian Shepard, Izzy. He is originally from Charleston, Missouri.
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