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Rural Blog: Report shows how one judge’s practices contribute to jail overcrowding in two Ky. counties

Rural jails all over the country face constant overcrowding, and though the problem is usually blamed on jail construction delays or outdated jails, judges share some of the blame.

A recent study of the criminal justice system in Kentucky’s Boyle and Mercer counties found that one circuit judge was largely responsible for overcrowding at the Boyle County Detention Center because of “‘discriminatory’ bond practices and lethargic case-processing times,” Ben Kleppinger reports for The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky. “The jail is stuffed with pretrial felony defendants who can’t afford their bonds and must wait months to resolve their cases, according to the blunt assessments of consultant Dr. Allen Beck in chapter two of the 106-page ‘Jail and Justice System Assessment.'”

Mercer (top) and Boyle counties (Wikipedia map)

Kleppinger is a fellow of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, which held a conference on rural jails in July and publishes The Crime Report, which is currently featuring Kleppinger’s story as an example of good local reporting on the issue.

The consultant’s report, which the counties commissioned, found that Circuit Judge Darren Peckler is a major contributor to overcrowding by requiring cash bonds, setting limits on the number of pleas he will hear, having only one arraignment date per month, revoking bonds when defendants are indicted, and not offering bonds to participants in a new “rocket docket” program intended to quickly dispose of cases, Kleppinger reports.

Requiring defendants to pay a cash bond is the biggest cause of overcrowding; the report found that only 3 percent of defendants in the two counties are able to leave jail without a cash bond, compared to 18 to 55 percent in neighboring counties. The report notes that research shows that non-financial bonds are as effective as financial bonds. Requiring cash bonds also can cause poor defendants to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to speed up the process, Kleppinger reports.

Peckler refused to participate in the study, and forbade District Court Judge Jeff Dotson from participating as well. The consultants combed through tens of thousands of documents and interviewed people at every stage of the local criminal justice system before writing their report.

“The report does note a ‘major decline in the jail population in the last several months,’ which it attributes to the public defender’s office and defense attorneys ‘advocating for the pretrial release and use of non-financial bonds during circuit court arraignment,'” Kleppinger reports. The report also notes that it’s common for such a decline to happen during a criminal justice system study because the sudden attention often prompts members of the system to reconsider habits.

Still, the report found that there is still a strong “local legal culture” in which participants reinforce each other’s incorrect belief that financial bonds improve appearance rates in court. The consultant recommended that someone from the Pretrial Justice Institute hold a presentation for local criminal justice officials.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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  1. Peter says:

    Our justice system is not perfect. In fact it’s very far from perfect. It’s a capitalist nightmare. Lawyers charging hundreds of dollars an hour. Court fees costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and wealthy criminals getting away with a slap on the wrist is sickening.

  2. Aryan says:

    I agree with Peter. How can justice be achieved if there’s a lot of money involved? Only the wealthy people or those who have money can achieve justice by the law? The poor people have no choice to plead guilty because they can’t afford to defend themselves.

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