Criminal justice reform bill faces scrutiny in Senate committee

02/16/2017 05:09 PM

FRANKFORT – A bill which would help released felons get back into the workforce faced scrutiny on Thursday by members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Senate Bill 120, sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, is a criminal justice reform bill which came about as a result of Gov. Matt Bevin’s appointed committee to study criminal justice reform, and is aimed at lowering the number of Kentuckians who return to prison by creating options for rehabilitation.

The legislation, which has the backing of the ACLU of Kentucky, Bluegrass Institute and Center for Economic Policy, and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce among others, removes bans on felons applying for state occupational licenses, gives probation and parole more flexibility when punishing offenders, creates drug treatment programs and opens the door for jobs and job training.

One result could be private industry opening a factory inside the prison where wages earned by inmates could pay for prison costs, taxes, restitution and child support as well as be saved for the individual to use after getting out, but that aspect would be have to have federal approval.

Some of the bill is aimed at reducing the state’s prison and jail population by dictating that people could no longer be put in jail because they could not afford to pay fines or court costs – unless prosecutors could prove people refused to pay even though they had the means to do it.

The measure also would allow some drug addicts to come to police stations for help without fear of being arrested or prosecuted on drug possession charges, with exceptions for repeat offenders or those who have other outstanding warrants.

Gov. Matt Bevin told the committee the legislation is about giving Kentuckians a second chance.

“There are tens of thousands of men and women who have screwed up, but they have paid their dues, and they want a second opportunity and I think we owe it to them,” Bevin said.

Kentucky Labor Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey said the job training programs in prisons have positives not only for the inmates when they are released but businesses in the state as well.

“There’s a shortage of skilled workers not only in our state but around America, and if we want to be the great state, the great commonwealth that I know that we can be, we have to be a place of second chance,” Ramsey said. “We also have to equip these people when they come back, they are capable and able of supporting themselves as well as their families.”

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley says the legislation is really about allowing released inmates a chance to get back on their feet which could reduce the risk of them becoming repeat offenders.

“If we reduce recidivism, by the very definition of that we reduce the victims in Kentucky, we reduce victimization and we reduce new crime,” Tilley said.

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, a former law enforcement officer, had deep concerns about the legislation because he felt that it puts too much emphasis on giving ex-feons a benefit of the doubt.

“There’s an underlying tone with everything that we’re doing in this area in Frankfort today with expungement, classification of crimes, whatever it might be, that somehow felons are victims, and that’s troubling to me,” Carroll said. “The felons are not the true victims here. “They knew what they were doing when they did it.”

The 2-hour meeting ended without a vote being taken.

Committee chair Westerfield said that he will have the bill heard again next week in committee giving more interested parties a chance to express their opinions about the legislation.

“We’ve got time and there’s no need to rush that,” Westerfield said. “I want to make sure we air all of those issues and concerns. I think a lot of the concerns that were raised at the end of the meeting were things that were not in the bill. We’re going to try to help and explain those issues.”


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