- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky officials say they will release hundreds of inmates ahead of schedule because of dangerous overcrowding at prisons and local jails, a byproduct of the state’s struggles with a nationwide opioid epidemic.

The emergency regulation, announced Wednesday, affects about 570 inmates who have been reviewed by the state’s independent Parole Board as part of the normal discharge process. Those inmates were scheduled to be released in 60 days. Instead, department spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said some have already been released and others will follow “over the next few days.”

Kentucky’s prison population has grown by 6.9 percent over the past year to about 24,000 inmates. That’s despite a much ballyhooed state law signed in 2011 that reduced penalties for some drug crimes and gave judges the discretion to send defendants to addiction treatment instead of jail.

For the first few years, the law seemed to have worked as Kentucky’s prison population hovered near 20,000 inmates instead of the predicted 30,000 without the changes. As a result, state officials stopped using private prisons and closed a medium security prison in Franklin County.

But since then, the state has seen a dramatic increase in the use of opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl. Lawmakers have responded by strengthening penalties against drug dealers, which combined with the fewer prisons has led to an overcrowding problem, according to Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley.

“It’s not just the growth issue, it’s really a capacity issue,” Tilley said.

The problem is so bad, lawmakers have directed Tilley to consider reopening the state’s private prisons, some of which were plagued by problems including officers sexually abusing female inmates.

The growing prison population means the state has been slow to transfer inmates once they have been convicted, which has led to overcrowded county jails. State officials say several counties are expanding their jails, which would create an additional 1,706 beds over the next three years.

The exception is Madison County in the central part of the state. The local jail is designed to hold 184 inmates, but it houses 400. Instead of building a new jail, Judge Executive Reagan Taylor wants to build a drug rehabilitation center because more than 80 percent of the county’s inmates are charged with drug-related offenses. He said the facility would be cheaper than building an 800-bed jail, which he said would cost taxpayers $45 million.

“Obviously, that’s not the way I wanted to spend money,” Taylor said.

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