Supporters of criminal justice reform bill say it'll help felons find work, ease transition in society

02/14/2017 02:10 PM

FRANKFORT — Kentucky can be an “example to the nation” if the legislature passes criminal justice legislation aimed at cutting recidivism and getting more felons to work, Gov. Matt Bevin said during a Capitol news conference Tuesday.

Senate Bill 120, filed Thursday, would tweak the state’s penal and employment laws. A key provision of SB 120, part of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council’s work ahead of this year’s legislative session, would bar licensing entities from denying a trade license based on prior felony convictions.

Felons can still be denied licenses, particularly if their crimes involve the area in which they’re hoping to work, but they must be given reasons in writing and can appeal.

“Why don’t they deserve it?” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is sponsoring SB 120, said during the press conference. “They’re the ones that’ve done exactly what we’ve asked people in the criminal justice system to do: They broke the law, they were punished, they went home and they didn’t do it again.

“And in many cases, they’ve put themselves through school to put them in a position to ask for the license or certification. Those are the very people we should be rewarding with an opportunity here.”

Rep. Joe Fischer, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hoped to see the General Assembly send SB 120 to Bevin’s desk.

The licensure portion is the “crux” of the bill, he said.

“This change in the law will embolden, I believe, private enterprise also to give felons a second chance, a second look at the opportunity to work, to have a place in the workforce,” said Fischer, R-Fort Thomas.

Westerfield referred to SB 120 as an economic and workforce development bill as much as it is a criminal justice reform bill, and others agreed.

Other pieces of the bill include language that would allow private industries to open inside prisons and employ inmates, create a re-entry drug supervision program similar to a later-stage Drug Court, and grant work release from certain low-risk felons serving in county jails.

The legislation, which has gained support from groups like Kentucky Smart on Crime and the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, doesn’t go as far as some want, but Bevin says there will be time to tackle those issues in later sessions.

“What I hope more than anything else you realize is that while there is yet work to be done, a tremendous amount of dialogue has occurred and a lot of voices have connected,” Bevin said.

“And while they’ve not agreed on everything and while some may feel that this bill could have been or should have been this, that or the other thing, the reality is it is a remarkable piece of legislation in terms of the impact that it will have on people’s lives immediately out of the gate.”

This push for criminal justice reform will enter an upper chamber that’s also moving a bill that would stiffen penalties against heroin and fentanyl traffickers, raising the lowest level to a class C felony.

The General Assembly lessened heroin peddling penalties for first-time offenders as part of its efforts to tackle the state’s mounting opioid problem in 2015, and Westerfield said there’s room to pass the two measures this year and that “both are important for public safety policy.”

“If you don’t do anything to change that behavior besides the punishment, they’re going to keep doing it,” he said. “There won’t be an incentive to not do that, and they’re going to keep coming back.”

SB 120’s first stop will be in Westerfield’s Senate Judiciary Committee, although it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing yet.


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