Kentucky’s expanding prison population has been a source of conversation and policy debate for years now, but probation and parole—two of the largest channels into the prison system—have largely been absent from these conversations.
Kentucky’s recidivism rate, the rate at which people return to prison, was 32.2 percent in 2016. That equates to about 6,000 potential recidivists from the 18,640 released prisoners in 2016. During the same year, 52 percent of people on parole, or 6,210 individuals, ended parole by being incarcerated. Similarly, 40 percent of those exiting probation, or 7,175 individuals, entered prison. In sum, more than 13,000 people entered prison from community supervision in 2016. This number is more than double the number of prisoners returning to prison, or the cohort we use to calculate recidivism. If recidivism numbers are important because they numerically represent the successes or failures of supervision, then those entering prison from parole or probation must be included. Despite this, Kentucky’s reform efforts continue to focus primarily on prison recidivism as the primary target of reform and spending. In fact, our prison system receives 6 times as much funding as probation and parole.
Probation and Parole
From 2005 to 2015, Kentucky saw the second largest increase in probation population in the nation. Even more alarming, the percentage of those probated in Kentucky that end up incarcerated has historically exceeded the national average. In 2016, nearly 18,000 Kentuckians exited probation, 40 percent of whom went on to serve time in prison. Nationally, only 12 percent of those exiting probation in 2016 were incarcerated. The gravity of this situation warrants pause. Kentucky’s number one alternative to incarceration is also a primary pipeline back to incarceration.
The Commonwealth’s parole system is in a similar situation. In 2016, 52 percent of the nearly 12,000 Kentuckians exiting parole were entering the prison system—up 15 percentage points from 2011 and a shocking 25 percentage points higher than the national average. Nationally, 27 percent of parole exits in 2016 led to incarceration.
The majority of probation and parole revocations, whether issued for a new crime or a technical violation, are nonviolent. According to a recent state analysis, 60 percent of parole revocations in Kentucky were for class D felonies such as theft or low-level drug crimes in 2016.
Kentucky is one of only nine states that has increased its community corrections numbers despite decreases in crime over the last decade. Between 2007 and 2016, 37 states experienced drops in their community correction population while simultaneously experiencing drops in crime, thus indicating that increases in probation and parole are not correlated with decreases in crime. A system that produces 13,000 incarcerated individuals in one year and has a failure rate of 50 percent is one that fails to prioritize public safety and community stability. 95 percent of incarcerated individuals are eventually released, and if the success rate of our community corrections is any indicator of what we can expect from released prisoners, this should be of utmost importance to lawmakers—specifically, those that value public safety and the efficiency of government-run programs.
Access to substance abuse programs, job training, and cognitive behavioral therapy would be better resources for those placed on probation and parole, possibly intervening in the cycle of community corrections and incarceration. At a minimum, reducing the number of individuals that do not pose a threat to public safety from community supervision is a commonsense strategy to do no harm.
Among our peer states: Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio, Kentucky has the highest percentage of both probation and parole exits that return to prison.
In fact, at 52 and 40 percent, respectively, Kentucky has the sixth largest percentage of parole failures (defined by returning to prison) and the fourth largest percentage of probation failures in the nation (this excludes six states that didn’t provide data and Maine, which had one parole exit in 2016).
A 2018 Pew report revealed that 1 in 54 adults in Kentucky are on probation or parole - in comparison, that is just under the population of Bowling Green under community supervision. Of new admissions to prison in 2016, 61 percent were parole and probation revocations. The apparent failures within both systems are costing Kentucky taxpayers and unnecessarily crowding our prisons. It is imperative that the narrative of prison reform in Kentucky starts with community corrections. Not doing so gravely undermines the actual issues pertinent to the bluegrass state and further robs Kentuckians of the criminal justice system they deserve.