They Were Recommended For Release. Instead They Died In Louisville’s Jail

Keith Smith was arrested for the last time on the evening of Jan. 5.

That final arrest played out in a similar fashion to many of the at least 17 others he had experienced in the past two years: Police were called to a location after Smith refused to leave or was causing a disturbance.

This time, the place was Sicilian Pizza and Pasta, next door to the Palace Theatre on Fourth Street. According to his arrest citation, Smith was accused of causing “annoyance to the patrons of the business and refusing to leave.” Police arrived and found him sitting in a booth. He continued his refusal to leave and was placed under arrest for criminal trespassing in the 3rd degree.

According to citations, the 66-year-old Black man’s previous arrests played out in a similar manner.

Harassing customers at the drive-thru of a White Castle. Sleeping on the third floor of The Seelbach. Shoplifting $5 worth of chips and cookies from the Dollar General in Old Louisville. Refusing to leave Dizzy Whizz. 

Most often, Smith’s address was listed on LMPD arrest citations as “unknown” or “CAL” — meaning city at large, or homeless.

While criminal trespassing in the 3rd degree, the charge from Jan. 5, does not carry jail time, Smith was picked up on a bench warrant that night, because he failed to appear in court on charges from a previous incident, a misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia. The drug paraphernalia charge stems from an officer finding a glass pipe in Smith’s possession in October after responding to a call about a disorderly person panhandling.

Smith was meant to be arraigned on Jan. 6, the day after his arrest. But in video of arraignment court, a voice can be heard saying that Smith is “still refusing to put clothes on” and requesting that his appearance be delayed.

The next day, on Jan. 7, Smith appeared remotely before Judge Amber Wolf. His bond had already been set at $1,500, but the County Attorney’s office asked that it be bumped up to $5,000, saying The Seelbach Hotel had contacted them through LMPD overnight to say Smith was “continually coming to their establishment” and “is aggressive with employees and guests.”

Wolf dismissed the move to increase bond, but kept the original bail in place, citing the earlier possession of drug paraphernalia charge and the fact that Smith had failed to appear in court on previous charges. 

“I’m not releasing you today because you have nine failure to appears and you are charged with both a misdemeanor and a violation,” Judge Wolf said during the arraignment. “So you’re going to have to stay for a little bit longer. The bond is $1,500.”

In the video provided by the court, there is no footage of Smith, who was appearing remotely. For nearly all of the video, Smith’s voice cannot be heard. Judge Wolf appears to be having trouble hearing him as well and says, “I can’t hear you, sir,” after she informs him of the bond.

“I don’t have $1,500,” says Smith in his only audible line from the video of his arraignment.

“I know you don’t have $1,500. I’m aware. But you don’t ever come to court,” she says.

After it appears Smith has departed from the hearing, Judge Wolf says, “This is another one of those cases that I think just probably needs — he probably needs a little bit more assistance than what the criminal justice system can provide for him.”

She added: “I just think he could probably benefit from maybe, some mental health… or maybe, I don’t know, some other treatment, other resources.”

On the morning of Jan. 9, Smith was found unresponsive in the medical housing unit of Louisville Metro Corrections. He was declared dead at UofL Hospital. No cause of death has been made public.

In death, Smith has an address: Meadow View Cemetery, Section 0, Row 1, Grave 11. Meadow View is the cemetery used by Louisville for indigent burials.

“Mr. Smith is a perfect example of what’s just wrong with the criminal legal system and the failure of the community to deal with other issues in terms of housing, access to mental health and substance abuse,” said Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky who reviewed Smith’s arrests. “That is an individual who should never find himself or herself involved in the criminal legal system.”

He added, “Locking him up doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t help him. It doesn’t help society.”


Smith’s death behind bars comes at the nexus of multiple failures in a city that calls itself compassionate but can be anything but. He was arrested by a police force whose chief has spoken against police responding to mental health crises and has been critical of arrests for low-level drug possession. He was saddled with a bond he could not afford, a bond issued despite the recommendation from Pretrial Services that he be released — and despite everybody from activists to local jail leadership calling for an end to cash bail. He was remanded to a jail that is so understaffed and regularly overcrowded that the union representing its officers says it is dangerous for inmates. 

Smith is one of six people who died while in Louisville Metro Department of Corrections custody between Nov. 29, 2021 and Feb. 6, 2022, a span of just 69 days. Three of the deaths were described as suicides by the jail. The causes of death in the other three cases, including Smith’s, have not been released, but LMDC said all three individuals were found unresponsive. 

After three inmates died in the span of a week between Nov. 29 and Dec. 4, 2021 the city announced that the FBI would be investigating one of those deaths, but did not say which one. As is standard practice, all of the deaths are being investigated by LMPD and LMDC.

Kentucky takes pride in how it handles defendants ahead of trials, holding up its system as a national model for reform and fairness. The Commonwealth was one of the first states to eliminate commercial bail bondsmen — and is among only four states to have done so. Its Department of Pretrial Services conducts interviews and assessments with defendants soon after their arrest, evaluating the risk that they will not return to court or commit a new offense if released. Based on these assessments, Pretrial Services makes a recommendation to the court.

According to Pretrial Services History Reports seen by LEO Weekly, all but one of the inmates who died in LMDC custody since Nov. 29 were recommended for release by Pretrial Services. In every instance where one of those inmates appeared before a judge, that recommendation was not followed and a bond was upheld, ensuring the person remained in custody.

“All jail deaths are avoidable. Because when we incarcerate somebody, we are taking responsibility for them being in custody,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, community advocacy and partnership manager for the Bail Project. 

Parrish-Wright, who is also running for mayor, provided the Pretrial Services History Reports that were seen by LEO. An open records request for the documents filed by LEO in January was denied by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, the body that oversees Pretrial Services.

Shameka Parrish-Wright poses in The Bail Project’s office in 2019. This year, Parrish-Wright is running for mayor. “All jail deaths are avoidable,” she told LEO after six people died at Louisville’s jail in the span of 69 days. |  Photo by Kathryn Harrington

Of the inmates that died that were recommended for release, three, including Smith, were recommended for release with pretrial supervision, which can include things like curfew, drug testing, checking in with the court and electronic monitoring. 

Two of the inmates who died were recommended for release with no conditions save for the standard stipulation that they not commit any new offenses and make all scheduled court appearances.

While Pretrial Services makes recommendations, they are just that: recommendations. Judges retain their discretion.

The Administrative Office of the Courts, which overseas Pretrial Services, told LEO in an email that there is not a process to track how often judges follow the recommendations of Pretrial Services.

Louisville’s chief public defender, Leo Smith, said, “Unless unusual circumstances exist, a judge should always follow the recommendation of Pretrial Services to release.”

Keith Smith, the homeless man who was recommended for release with pretrial supervision by Pretrial Services, was assigned a “high” failure to appear risk and a “moderate” new criminal activity risk — likely the result of his previous failures to appear in court, and that he was arrested on a new charge while other charges were pending.

In the bond decision for Smith, he is described as a flight risk. Other people who died in LMDC custody were described as either a flight risk or danger.


To Daniel Johnson, the president of the union that represents corrections workers, the issue in the jail is simple: Without more corrections officers, inmates are at greater risk.

According to the correction workers union, FOP Lodge 77, as of Feb. 4 there were more than 140 vacancies at LMDC. The union says that from Jan. 1 to Feb. 4, LMDC has hired nine but lost 14 staff. In 2021, LMDC hired 39 and lost 70.

As of Feb. 6, there were more than 1,400 inmates in Louisville’s jail according to LMDC, though that number has been higher at points recently.

Johnson said it is “impossible to supervise that many people with a limited staff.” 

Officers have to put eyes on inmates every 30 minutes, Johnson said, but he believes that is too long, a time that could be shortened by increasing staffing.

“Honestly, that is too much time,” said Johnson. “A person in our care shouldn’t have the time to tie a noose around something in the cell and around their neck and have time to do something like that before somebody is able to get in there and stop them from doing that. Or if a person is laying in bed having a medical emergency, they might be laying there having a heart attack for 30 minutes before somebody walks by again. There’s just too much time.”

Johnson believes additional staffing would increase safety at the jail.

“I can’t say for certain those people would still be alive today, but I can say that there’s a greater chance that they would have been alive today if we were fully staffed,” said Johnson. 

Johnson said in the latest death, a suicide by hanging, the “knife of life” tool corrections officers use to try to save people who are attempting to hang themselves was too dull to cut the sheet the person was hanging from. 

“I’ve watched the body camera footage. He is trying to use it and it’s not cutting,” he said.

According to Johnson, the knives they are issued are old and they had previously requested new ones.

He said the next day, another inmate was attempting to hang themself with a sheet but was stopped by the same sergeant who tried to intervene in the previous suicide. When they called for a mental health professional to see the person who had just attempted suicide, they were told there were no mental health staff present, Johnson said.

Records obtained by the Courier Journal showed that in the days that followed the latest suicide, there were times at which there were no mental health professionals either on duty or available to respond to incidents. 

Even when shifts are fully staffed, Johnson said, it is often because officers are pulling forced overtime shifts, as was the case when the most recent death occurred, he claims.

Steve Durham, assistant director of LMDC, pushed back against notions raised by the corrections union that the jail was understaffed and inherently dangerous for inmates housed there.

“People die in the emergency room waiting for care. They die on the tennis court. They die in the arms of their loved ones. And I wish we could do something to prevent from dying in Metro Corrections — we can’t, we can’t always do that,” he told LEO.

According to Durham, the jail has “a sufficient staff compliment,” though he added that individuals calling out sick or going on extended leave can impact day to day operations.

In a move that is hoped to help address the staffing needs at the jail, in January, the city and FOP Lodge 77 came to an agreement that would boost starting pay for corrections officers to $44,346 and give and 8% raise to all sworn officers.

In late January — ahead of the most recent jail death — a trio of Metro Council Democrats introduced a resolution expressing no confidence in the leadership of LMDC Director Dwayne Clark and his executive staff. The resolution, which says Clark has failed to address staff recruitment needs and contributed to the deterioration of morale, was approved by the full Metro Council on Feb. 17 by an 18-6 vote. Afterward, Mayor Greg Fischer, the only person with the authority to fire the jail’s director, backed Clark, saying “Tonight’s vote was an unnecessary distraction from the important efforts Director Clark and his leadership team have made to improve the conditions at Metro Corrections in this unprecedented time of challenges.”

Metro Council also approved their own investigation into the jail on Feb. 17.

For many calling for reform, it is a lack of needed change that has contributed to the spate of recent deaths.

“Despite all of our calls for systematic change, nothing has happened. Whatever system they use to evaluate individuals for mental health screening obviously isn’t working,” said Njuguna of the ACLU of Kentucky, who has also called for an end to cash bail.

On Feb. 14, the mayor’s office announced that the city had hired an independent expert in jail deaths “to conduct an in-depth review of three recent suicides at LMDC, as well as Corrections’ policies, procedures, practices, training and equipment.”

The mayor’s office also said it was hiring two new Public Services Assistant Chiefs who would focus things like inmate medical care, reducing the number of inmates being held, staffing and discipline.

But the jail’s issues have not stopped judges from sending defendants there, including defendants on non-violent charges like Smith.

B. Scott West, Kentucky’s deputy public advocate, said the conditions at a jail likely do not weigh much on judges.

“I can’t name a single judge who would let somebody out because fo the perception that there’s not enough resources to keep them in,” he said. “I don’t know any judges that would say, ‘Well, I really think you’re too big of a risk to release, but I’m going to release you anyways, because there’s not enough people to provide safe oversight in the jails.”

A person holds a sign protesting recent jail deaths at a vigil outside of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections on Feb. 1. Between Nov. 29 and Feb. 6, six inmates died at Louisville’s jail. | Photo by Carolyn Brown


Under the current system, when defendants suffering from homelessness, mental health issues or substance abuse issues — people like Smith — come before judges, options can be limited. 

“There are a lot of options available to judges if the person appearing in front of them has money, has stable housing, has a support system,” said District Court Judge Julie Kaelin. “When we — as is very frequently the case — have someone in front of us who does not have stable housing or a support system or money, there are very few options.”

“I do not think that the jail should be used as a homeless shelter. I do not think it should be used as a mental health facility. It is — it is used as both of those things because there aren’t enough other options,” said Kaelin. “But that’s not what it’s there for and that’s not fair to corrections officers, other inmates — it’s not fair to a lot of people to use it that way simply because we haven’t funded other options.”

Kaelin and others LEO spoke to for this story said the loss of The Living Room — a 24/7 crisis center for people with nowhere else to go — in 2019 restricted the options judges have when dealing with individuals who are experiencing homelessness, mental health crises or a drug abuse. 

The Living Room was “a buffer where you didn’t have to necessarily put somebody in the system,” and instead could help them get them therapy and help with putting a roof over their head, said Parrish-Wright. The Living Room was closed due to city budget cuts in 2019.

Officials have said a “community respite center” that appears to be similar to The Living Room is being planned as part of the city’s proposed 911 diversion pilot program.

Announced in October, the diversion program would see some 911 calls routed to trained crisis interventionists. The program would also provide the option for calls to be responded to in-person by a non-police crisis intervention unit.

When the program was announced, Mayor Fischer said the model “deflects away from criminalizing” mental health issues. The program was meant to begin in December in LMPD’s 4th Division, but Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the program and community respite center are expected to be operational by mid-March.

LMPD Chief Erika Shields has similarly encouraged a non-police response to some emergency calls. In an interview last year, she said while police have to respond to potentially dangerous situations, that police should not be the responders to other crises stemming from potential drugs or mental health issues.

“We’ve seen police across the country shoot people who have no clothes on — explain that to me,” she said last year. “At that point I’m like, I don’t even want a cop out there.”

Cash bail and a lack of alternatives for judges means jails often end up housing people who have substance abuse or mental health issues who have nowhere else to go.

“Those who are homeless, have drug issues or mental illness often stay in jail simply because they cannot post a cash bail. These individuals are left behind bars for long periods of time while wealthy people charged with the same types of crimes are able to buy their freedom,” said Leo Smith, Louisville’s chief public defender.

At least two people who died in LMDC custody and had been recommended for release appeared to be experiencing homelessness at the time they were arrested. And at least two people, including Keith Smith, were being held on drug charges.

Parrish-Wright of the Bail Project said judges should take advantage of the non-financial options they have at their disposal more often, such as requiring released defendants to check in with the court or increased use of monitored home incarceration.

By continuing to use financial bail, judges “are just perpetuating the two tier system: You pay as you go. If you have the money, you can pay to get out,” said Parrish-Wright.

According to a jail policy snapshot from the city’s Jail Policy Committee — a detailed look at the population on one specific day — there were 23 people being held at LMDC on bonds of $500 or less on Oct. 20, 2021. Of the 1,131 pretrial detainees in custody that day, 9% were being held on drug charges.

On the issue of bail reform, people like Parrish-Wright of the Bail Project and Durham, the LMDC assistant director, are closely aligned.

“I think there should be a default of no cash and there should be a system,” he said, adding that such changes would help not just Metro Corrections, but the entire Commonwealth. “Bail reform is a significant piece of the puzzle for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s very expensive to keep a person in jail. Here in Metro Corrections it’s over $100 a day for an average individual. If you’ve got chronic and acute care needs, that cost goes up into the $300s, per day.”


The Bullitt County Detention Center in Shepherdsville is less than a half-hour drive from LMDC, a 23-mile straight shot on I-65 South. It is a journey that people arrested on Bullitt County charges in the Louisville area have to go on to finally appear before a judge. But it was a journey 36-year-old Lesley Starnes would never make. Instead, he was held in LMDC for more than 10 days with no access to a judge, no court-appointed counsel and no movement on his case before he was found hanging in his cell, dead by suicide.

“This is what happens to people. You sit there and you sit there until somebody says, ‘Oh, I want to deal with this,’” said Parrish-Wright of the Bail Project.

Starnes was arrested by LMPD on Jan. 26 on a Bullitt County bench warrant over the conditions of an old failure to pay child support conviction. According to court records, Starnes had agreed to plead guilty to a 2015 failure to pay child support charge. In 2016, he was ordered to pay $100 per month in addition to his monthly child support payment to avoid serving his sentence. However, in an affidavit filed in March of this year, the Bullitt County Attorney’s office said Starnes had not made any payments since 2017. As a result, a Bullitt County judge put out a bench warrant for his arrest.

Bench warrants are often served when a person has some kind of other incidental contact with law enforcement. For instance, a hypothetical: A person arrested during 2020’s protests on an obstructing a highway charge misses a court appearance and has a bench warrant issued for their arrest. Months later, they are driving ten miles an hour over the speed limit on the interstate and get pulled over by LMPD. Their speeding is not something they can be arrested for, but the officer would run their information through the system and see that the person had a bench warrant out and take them into custody. If a person is arrested on another charge, that bench warrant will also be served (as happened with Smith, the homeless man who died in LMDC custody).

How Starnes came into custody is unclear, with all the agencies that could have touched his case — the Circuit Courts of Jefferson and Bullitt counties, LMDC, LMPD, the Bullitt County Sheriff’s Department and the Bullitt County Detention Center — either unable or unwilling to provide an account of his arrest. 

Arrest citations are generally uploaded into CourtNet, an online record database accessible to attorneys, journalists and others who interact with the court system. When an arrest citation is not entered into CourtNet, it is often easily obtained by going to a county’s Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

However, in the case of Starnes, no arrest citation could be provided through any of those avenues. The Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk’s office repeatedly directed LEO Weekly to the Bullitt County Circuit Court Clerk’s office; The Bullitt County Circuit Court Clerk’s office said they were unaware that Starnes had been incarcerated at LMDC and had not received any information about his arrest.

“Our office was not notified by LMDC or anyone else that this warrant was served until we received your email yesterday and started looking into it,” wrote Bullitt County Circuit Court Clerk Paulita Keith in a Feb. 10 email to LEO.

Additionally, Keith said Bullitt County Circuit Court only received a copy of a served warrant on Feb. 9 — three days after Starnes’ suicide and two weeks after his arrest — after being contacted by LEO. Typically, Keith said, Bullitt County Circuit Court receives copies of served warrants from the jail holding the individual or from the Circuit Court in the county they were arrested in. Then, she said, a Bullitt County court date is set and the Sheriff’s Department is contacted to coordinate the transport of the inmate.

A copy of that served warrant provided to LEO on Feb. 9 by the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk’s office showed that Starnes was arrested by LMPD but provided little other information. It gave the name of the officer who made the arrest but did not say where Starnes was arrested or why he had contact with police.

Durham, of LMDC, said Starnes had been scheduled for transport and that Metro Corrections liaises with the Sheriff’s Department, not the court. LMDC was unable to provide LEO with an arrest citation or tell LEO any information about how Starnes came into LMPD’s custody.

LMPD did not respond to requests for comment around circumstances surrounding Starnes’s arrest. An LMPD arrest report obtained by LEO on Feb. 18 through an open records request sheds little light on what happened. According to the report, Starnes was arrested at 4:39 p.m. on Jan. 26 at “S Shelby St / Milton St, Ky,” presumably a reference to an intersection in the Schnitzelburg neighborhood. Failure to Appear is the only charge listed on the document. In the document’s narrative section, it says Starnes was arrested on a failure to appear charge in relation to a Bullitt County warrant. No vehicle information is filled out on the arrest report, potentially suggesting that Starnes was not arrested during a traffic stop, a common way people with active bench warrants end up in jail.

Durham, the LMDC assistant director, says people arrested on out-of-county charges like Starnes exist in what he calls a “legal limbo” that is “a rough spot in the judicial system.”

“If you’re arrested on only an out-of-county warrant, you will not see a judge in Jefferson County. You will not be appointed an attorney. You will not have a chance to explain anything about your case or offer an ability to change the conditions of bond…And no third party has informed you of the nature of your charges,” he said. 

Inmates are left in this limbo until the county from which their warrant originated from comes to collect them, which can be days, weeks or even months, according to Durham.

On Feb. 9, Durham said, there were “approximately 28” individuals being held in LMDC solely on out-of-county warrants.

After Starnes’s death, Kaelin, the district court judge, introduced a motion that would require people arrested on an out-of-county warrant to appear before a judge in Jefferson County.

“If you’re a person who has been brought into the Louisville jail, even though it’s another county’s warrant, you will at the very least see a judge within 24 hours and be told why you’re sitting in jail. And there will be a record of it,” she said.

She said the motion would not require judges to release anybody, but would, however, increase accountability by keeping track of inmates arrested on out-of-county warrants.

On Feb. 15, Kaelin said, an amended version of the motion passed, requiring those arrested on out-of-county warrants to be added to the next available Jefferson County arraignment docket. The motion also requires reviews of the cases at ten day intervals “until the holding county has itself reviewed the person’s bond, or the court has made a specific finding as to why further review is not warranted.”

However, on Feb. 18, Kaelin tweeted that Chief District Judge Annette Karem had said that the policy was not being implemented and that it remained unclear how out-of-county cases would be handled.

Durham of LMDC said he supported the idea of having a local judge see inmates arrested on out-of-county warrants and reviewing their bond. He said he also wants other counties to have a precise timeframe in which they have to collect people arrested in Jefferson County on their warrants.


On Valentine’s Day, leading Democratic mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg was in his Butchertown campaign office when he said a man walked in, aimed his gun at him and began firing.

Greenberg, along with four staffers in the office, survived and was uninjured. However, the shooter came perilously close to killing Greenberg; The candidate said that a bullet pierced his sweater and shirt. A staffer was able to shut the door as gunfire broke out, likely preserving life.

LMPD outside of 1201 Story Ave., where Craig Greenberg’s office is located. | Photo By Josh Wood.

Not long after the shooting, Quintez Brown, a well-known 21-year-old civil rights activist was arrested less than a half-mile away. Police said he matched the person seen in surveillance footage as well as the descriptions from Greenberg and his staff. Brown, police said, was in possession of a handgun and ammunition when he was searched.

Brown was charged with attempted murder and four counts of wanton endangerment. Bond was set at $100,000, full cash.

Two days after Brown was arrested, the Louisville Community Bail Fund, which is managed by Black Lives Matter Louisville, paid Brown’s bond. The Bail Fund said they paid for Brown to be released so that he could get the mental health help he needed but that the jail could not provide. That evening, he was fitted with an electronic ankle monitor and released into home incarceration.

Brown’s release, after the apparent assassination attempt, sparked widespread outrage and condemnation. Greenberg said the release had traumatized him again and said that it showed the criminal justice system is broken.

But the release of Brown also reinvigorated calls for cash bail to be ended in Kentucky. U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker, who knew Brown, said in a statement after Brown’s arrest that his “heart breaks” for him. When Brown was released though, Booker released another statement calling for an end to cash bail, saying it did not take safety into consideration.

“Anyone who has been arrested for attempted murder — and is feared to be a harm to themselves and others — should be in custody,” Booker said. “The sad reality of our cash bail system is that it puts a price tag on crime without sufficient considerations for safety. This often keeps innocent people behind bars because they do not have the funds. Meanwhile, a person charged with attempted murder can be released in 48 hours if they have enough money.”

On Feb. 17, Judge Kaelin took to Facebook, calling for an end to cash bail and saying she supported a system similar to that used on the federal level, where whether or not a person is released is based solely on risk, not whether they can come up with money.

“The courts need to be able to protect the community. Cash bail does not do that,” she wrote on Facebook. “Instead, it prioritizes freedom for the wealthy over the poor, and has been used as a means to hold people in jail who are not a danger to the community. This encourages guilty pleas by giving the state leverage to offer release to someone who pleads guilty.”

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