In December of 2017, the Boyle and Mercer County Fiscal Courts, commissioned a report on what improvements they could make to their criminal justice system. Boyle and Mercer county share a jail, the Boyle County Detention Center, and at the time of the commissioned report, it’s population was 181% of design capacity.
The report, produced by consultants Brandstetter Carroll Inc. was released on November 8 of this year and highlights a number of proposed improvements to the local criminal justice system in Boyle and Mercer counties, with a particular focus on jail crowding. According to the report, "[t]he jail is greatly bloated by three factors: (1) Very slow felony case processing, (2) An apparent refusal to set non-financial bonds, (3) A very high incidence of revocation of initial bonds and rearrest after being indicted by Grand Jury."
Factors two and three point to an over-reliance on money when setting conditions of pretrial release. According to data released by the Kentucky Administrative Office of Courts, in 2017 about 39% of all defendants were released on non-financial bonds state-wide. In Mercer county, just 7% of defendants are released on non-financial bonds, in Boyle county, its just 4%.
In our 2017 report “Reform Opportunities in Kentucky’s Bail System,” we highlighted a case in Mercer county in which a defendants was charged with the single misdemeanor of Public Intoxication. That defendant was charged on July 27, 2017 and a cash bond was set he could not afford. On August 14, after being in jail for 18 days, was released on his own recognizance. One month later he plead guilty, was assessed a $50 fine and $194 in court costs. The full amount, $244, is $314 less than the total cost of his confinement – using the $31-a-day metric the KY Department of Corrections pays county jails to house state inmates.
The Brandsetter report lays a lot of blame at the feet of a number of specifically named judges, and while Boyle and Mercer counties, and the Boyle County Detention Center may be extreme examples, they are indicative of a larger problem. Nearby Clark county only releases 18% of defendants on non-financial conditions, and as we highlighted in our report, in 2016 state-wide there were 64,123 cases in which defendants charged with non-violent, non-sexual offenses were detained pretrial on financial conditions. Of these, 44,997 were also all assessed a low or moderate risk.
Absent reform, county budgets will continue to be stretched and jails will continue to crowd. But there is a better way forward. By focusing pretrial release on charged offense and offender background, and less on means to post bond, Kentucky can both save money and have improved public safety outcomes.