Jailer’s Office Dates Back Century to Kentucky’s Roots

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One of many signs promoting Boone Mahon for jailer in Martin County

Jacob Ryan / KyCIR

One of many signs promoting Boone Mahon for jailer in Martin County

How did Kentucky come up with the idea of electing county jailers? And why has the practice persisted here long after other states abolished it?

Before becoming a state in 1792, Kentucky was part of Virginia and inherited many of its traditions, including county governments and, probably, local jails, according to Robert Ireland, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky’s first constitution made no specific mention of jails or jailers, he said. A provision requiring each county to elect a jailer was adopted in 1850 in the state’s third constitution. (Read: KyCIR’s investigation Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails)

That was part of a broader movement to democratize local government, according to Ireland and James Klotter, the state historian and a professor of history at Georgetown College.

In Kentucky’s early years, county officials were appointed, and they ruled what amounted to “little kingdoms,” Klotter said. “Over time, the democratic spirit of Kentucky won out. People wanted a voice in government.” One result, he said, was the election of many local officials, including jailers.

By 1891, when the state’s current constitution was adopted, questions had arisen about the wisdom of having jailers.

Some wanted to eliminate the position and merge the jailer’s duties with those of the sheriff, who often didn’t have enough income, said Ireland, author of two editions of a reference book about the Kentucky constitution. Others, however, argued that the sheriff didn’t have time to run the jail.

The result was a compromise, which permitted the state legislature to consolidate the offices of sheriff and jailer “in any county or counties, as it shall deem most expedient,” with the sheriff performing the jailer’s duties.

Ireland said it is ironic that, although the idea was to assist smaller, financially strapped counties, the only ones to abolish the office of jailer have been Jefferson and Fayette, the state’s two largest. And there, the jails are run not by the sheriff’s office but by corrections professionals.

As to why no other counties, especially those that don’t have a functioning local jail, have sought to abolish the position of jailer, Ireland said he found it “unusual that we retained jailers and other states didn’t.”

“I can’t speak to why other states eliminated them,” he said. But “I can imagine that jailers wouldn’t want this done, and they probably have some political clout, just like little counties don’t want to be consolidated.”

Klotter added: “People are jealous of their county, and county lines. It’s very hard to do away with positions, because the positions are jobs, (and) jobs are crucial in some of these rural counties, particularly.

“The idea that we’re giving something up, we’re losing something, even though it may be more efficient, even though it may be a better way of governance — it’s very hard to overcome that kind of mindset that goes back for centuries.”

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533. Cathy Sutton contributed research.

This work was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.