A Southern Kentucky Judge Talks About The Economics of Incarceration

Nov 13, 2017

Warren Circuit Judge Steve Wilson in his office.
Credit Becca Schimmel

A southern Kentucky judge said the cost of incarceration is changing the way Kentucky deals with drug offenders.

Warren Circuit Court Judge Steve Wilson said he’s seen a shift in how Kentucky’s legislators view incarceration for drug crimes. He said legislators are increasingly talking to him and other judges about alternatives to jail. He said the cost of keeping people behind bars has a lot to do with that shifting mindset.

The average cost of incarcerating someone in Kentucky is about $27,000 a year.

“The extremely high cost of incarceration versus the cost of treatment has always been argued to me much more advantageous for treatment than incarceration,” Wilson said. “Because at the end of incarceration without treatment we still have the same problem.”

Based on interactions with addicts in his courtroom, Wilson thinks the pull of addiction far outweighs the fear of being punished in the legal system. He said warehousing people in jail without dealing with the substance abuse ignores the root of the problem, and more needs to be done to increase treatment options for addicts in the state.

Wilson said he’s seen the popularity of certain drugs come and go during his years as a prosecutor and judge. When he started working in the legal system the focus was on heroin, followed by an emphasis on cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription opioids.

“And so after 35 years I’m right back to where we started, we’re worried about heroin,” he said.  

Wilson said Kentucky lawmakers have become more interested in offering addicts treatment options, instead of simply throwing them in jail. He said this shift is largely the result of the cost of incarcerating drug offenders without treating the addiction that leads to many of them becoming repeat offenders.