Kentucky Criminal Justice Bill Could Help Spur Washington

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By Jessica DaSilva

A bill that would bring sweeping changes to Kentucky’s criminal justice system and is supported by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and a bipartisan group of officials passed the Kentucky House on March 15.

The legislation—which focuses on prisoner reentry issues—is one of several initiatives put forth by Bevin. Another aims to match offenders with jobs after their release from custody, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

The move makes Kentucky the latest addition to a trend of Republican-led state legislatures passing comprehensive laws that attempt to shift the focus of criminal justice away from incarceration and toward reducing re-offense rates, said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.

The action network is a bipartisan advocacy group that works with public and private entities to enact change through criminal justice and public safety initiatives, according to its website.

Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma have led the charge over the past few years toward comprehensive changes to their criminal justice systems, VonLuehrte said.

The Kentucky Senate first approved the measure in February and the House followed suit by an 85-9 margin. However, it made some changes that the Senate must now consider.

Congress has yet to pass initiatives that would refocus federal criminal justice on reducing recidivism and incarceration, despite polling data suggesting that voters favor criminal justice policies that emphasize rehabilitation over imprisonment.

It “will be because of governors like Bevin that we see justice reform move at the federal level,” VonLuehrte said.

Outlook in Washington

The newest polling data conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of USJAN focuses on Kentucky voters, according to a memorandum shared with Bloomberg BNA Feb. 6. Among the findings, the data reveals:

  •  91 percent of Kentuckians polled support removing barriers to employment for former inmates;
  •  73 percent of Kentuckians surveyed support eliminating money bail;
  •  85 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats strongly agree that the main focus of the justice system should be on reducing the re-offense rate; and
  •  63 percent of Kentucky voters polled said they were more likely to re-elect legislators who favor criminal justice reform.
The results resemble data previously reported by Bloomberg BNA during the presidential campaign revealing that more than 70 percent of all voters of all ideologies in swing states supported criminal justice policy changes. Surveyed states included Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

State lawmakers have begun crafting and passing legislation reflecting these sentiments, while equivalent efforts stall in Washington, because of increased exposure, VonLuehrte said.

Working locally, state politicians encounter their constituents on a daily basis, she explained. Meanwhile, federal representatives spend most of their time in Washington, she said.

State politicians are not only more likely to be held accountable by their constituents, but they can see the need for reform in an up-close and personal way, VonLuehrte said.

“There’s rhetoric and then there’s reality,” VonLuehrte said. State representatives “need to face the harsh reality of their broken systems every day.”

Planned Changes

The comprehensive bill comes on the heels of an executive order from Bevin that will remove the question about criminal histories from state job applications, the release said.

The new bill focuses on supporting released inmates during the re-entry process, including job training during incarceration and removing automatic bans for former inmates seeking occupational licenses, according to a governor’s office press release. Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment to the governor’s office were not returned.

The bill is a huge win that will likely save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Arthur Rizer—justice policy director and senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank. However, Rizer expressed some concerns to Bloomberg BNA on March 16 about the bill’s limitations that leave “very big holes” in its impact.

For example, Rizer said the bill still bans former violent felons from obtaining occupational licenses. A 10-year-old conviction as a teenager shouldn’t prevent a mature adult from becoming a nurse, he said.

Additionally, the bill would also allow private companies to set up factories in prisons where inmates could work for minimum wage, Rizer said. That could draw controversy from unions or other groups that seek to protect workers’ rights, he said.

As for spurring on Washington, Rizer said he isn’t as sure. On the one hand, Kentucky is a powerful state with a popular, conservative governor, he wrote. On the other, several conservative states have passed reform-based legislation and Washington hasn’t budged, he noted.

Yet overall, the legislation is a success because it will help former inmates while saving the state money, he clarified.

“The fact is post-release employment reduces recidivism—which will save money by not only preventing future lock ups but also move people into the tax base,” Rizer wrote in an email.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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