In the last six years, Louisville has gained nearly 20,000 residents, and more people means more crimes and more inmates.
“As our population grows, it gets harder and harder obviously to reduce the number of people that use the jail,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in a recent interview.
At the same time, he said, crowded jails and prisons across the state are preventing local officials from transferring some inmates out of the local jails. Until this year, the city had the jail population under control for more than three years, he said. IL recently reported on the dynamics that are pushing state prisons and county jails beyond their capacities and took an inside look at the local facilities.
Fischer said that current and long-term challenges make it clear that Louisville needs a new jail.
“The question is,” he said, “‘How do you pay for it?’”
A spokesman for the mayor’s office told IL that the administration has “no plans in the short term for a new jail.” It declined to answer questions about whether anyone is studying how to address overcrowding, who would pay for a new jail, which could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars, or where it could be built.
Fischer said that the number of inmates has exceeded the metro jail facilities’ capacity for years, certainly as long as he has served as mayor, despite new programs to address some of the underlying problems
Familiar Faces, for one, helps mentally ill, homeless and/or addicted inmates with medications and rides to shelters.
The Dual Diagnosis Cross-Functional Team, which helps repeat offenders with co-occurring disorders, especially chronic alcohol abuse, has figured out ways to reduce costs but treats those inmates in a humane way.
Those programs have “helped us tremendously in not having to build a new jail,” Fischer told IL.
Not a priority
State inspections show that for at least five years, overcrowding has hampered the mission of local jails at least to some extent.
But Metro Councilman David James, D-6, told IL that the Louisville jails did not have enough space even as far back as 1984, when he became a police officer.
“It’s just a problem that isn’t high on the priority list of metro government. But it should be,” he said.
James said he has toured the jail several times, including once within the last year.
“We don’t have enough jail space,” he said.
Compared with its peer cities, Louisville does not have a lot of jail capacity, James said.
For example, the jail in Fayette County, built in 2000, has a capacity of 1,304, compared with Louisville’s 1,919 (including 126 beds on the third floor for which staffing has not been budgeted). That means Louisville’s jail is 48 percent bigger than Lexington’s — although Louisville has about 100 percent more residents.
The Fayette County Jail was built for $70 million and replaced a jail with a capacity of 575. This year it has had an average inmate count of 1,286. It has 324 sworn officers, compared with Louisville’s 426, and its annual operating costs are $33 million, compared with Louisville’s $54 million.
James said the city made a mistake when it backed a jail into the former offices of the Metropolitan Sewer District in the 1990s and at the same time eliminated some work release areas on Market Street.
“Now we’re paying the price,” James said.
The overcrowding is compromising public safety, the councilman said, because some people are spending less time in jail than they should.
The city needs to try to get out of a cycle of arresting people, releasing them, having them hurt someone, and arresting and incarcerating them again, James said.
“I’m in favor of us having a correctional complex that fits the size of our community,” James said.
He suggested that solutions could include new facilities, upgrades to existing ones or a combination, which would reduce operational expenditures, including on personnel and maintenance, and would improve community safety.
“The current setup … I just don’t think it’s cost-effective,” James said. “We need to do better than what we’re doing. And, yes, that costs money.”
Metro Councilwoman Marianne Butler, D-15, too, said she worries about overcrowding affecting public safety, the health of inmates and corrections staff, and drawing regulatory scrutiny.
Butler also has toured the jail within the last year.
“You see people sleeping on mattresses on the floor,” she said. “That’s not good.”
The jail also is out of date and spread over four buildings, which makes it difficult for corrections officers to manage the inmates, especially as more of them deal with drug and health issues.
Butler said she also has concerns about potential legal troubles, which the city has faced before. For more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, a federal court limited the number of inmates who could be held at local jails, which resulted in people being released who should not have been, she said.
Butler said the overcrowding also raises uncomfortable questions about how the city can deal with people who suffer from addictions or mental illness. “I don’t know what the short-term solution is,” Butler said.
Available treatment facilities are beyond capacity.
For example, The Healing Place, a recovery program for people with drug and alcohol addiction, in June turned away 400 people who were seeking help. The nonprofit is raising funds to expand its capacity, but will offer additional beds no sooner than the end of next year. And the additional capacity won’t be nearly enough to meet the rising demand.
State to tackle criminal justice reform
State Rep. Denny Butler, R-Louisville, said that while the state has tackled bits and pieces of criminal justice in the last few years, he expects a group of legislators to soon propose a comprehensive reform package.
“It’s one of those issues that has to be dealt with,” Butler told IL.
Butler said that law enforcement and justice leaders are right to change their approach to dealing with drug addicts.
When he was a police officer, crack cocaine landed many addicts in jail, Butler said, and police and criminal justice officials thought they were doing the right thing by placing them behind bars.
However, the addicts never sought treatment for their addictions, which would continue to fuel their criminal behavior after they were released from custody.
Now, Butler said, law enforcement, criminal justice officials and state legislators realize that one component of the solution to jail overcrowding will have to be treatment options for addiction and mental illness.
The legislator said one program showing lots of promise is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, started in Seattle, which helps connect community resources with people who struggle with addictions or mental health issues. Communities may have resources available, but people often do not know how or where to avail themselves of the help.
In Seattle, when police officers come across an addict, they can, depending on the situation, get him or her into treatment rather than taking him to jail, Butler said.
Louisville Metro Department of Corrections Director Mark Bolton has traveled to Seattle to get an up-close look at how LEAD works. The LEAD website lists Louisville among 13 cities in which the program is under development.
Butler said that tackling the overcrowding, addiction and mental health problems will require cooperation among lots of stakeholders, including agencies that battle homelessness and joblessness and even schools, but cities can reap great rewards if they get addicts out of jail and help them become productive citizens.
Butler said communities have to do something different, even if they start with small steps.
Otherwise, he said, “It’s going to wipe out a generation.”
Until those efforts are in place and are producing results, he said, building more and better jails has to remain one of the possible solutions.
Rodney Ballard, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, disagreed.
Communities have to work harder to put dangerous people behind bars and to divert others into programs that treat their addictions, change their behaviors and provide them with marketable skills, he said.
“We can’t build our way out of it,” Ballard said. “We can’t afford it.”