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Bevin Backs Republican Criminal Justice Overhaul

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

Gov. Matt Bevin has thrown his support behind a far-reaching criminal justice bill intended to keep those charged with crimes from reoffending after they’re released from prison.

“A job is one of the best ways for a person to not fall back into recidivism, a chance for them to be able to rebuild their lives” Bevin said during a press conference on Tuesday.

The bill is the product of a 23-member panel appointed by Bevin over the summer to recommend a “smarter, compassionate, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in Kentucky.”

Supporters said the legislation’s most significant component would allow those with felony records to seek professional licenses where they used to be automatically banned.

“They’re the ones that’ve done exactly what we’ve asked people in the criminal justice system to do,” said Sen. Whitney Westerfrield, a Republican from Hopkinsville and the bill’s sponsor.

“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.”

The bill would also allow private companies to open up a factory or plant inside prison walls and employ prisoners. Any earnings would go towards paying off restitution, child support and taxes.

“These things that we want them to be responsible for: you’re giving them job skills and training, you’re making sure that they have a marketable skill for when they leave. So they’ve got a reason to stay out and not come back,” Westerfield said.

Another provision in the bill would also set up a work release program to allow those serving time for Class D or Class C felonies be approved to participate in programs outside of prison walls.

The bill also creates a reentry drug supervision pilot program for those convicted of low-level drug-related felonies. Participants would receive random drug tests, participate in therapy sessions and eventually maintain full-time employment, training or education.

An earlier version of the bill set out to reduce the state’s incarcerated population and cut down on costs by raising the threshold for certain crimes to be considered felonies and eliminating bail as a requirement for the accused to get out of jail before trial. Those provisions didn't make it into the final version.

But ACLU of Kentucky advocacy director Kate Miller said those reforms are still desperately needed.

“Let’s not leave these important ideas behind. Let’s come together to discuss these and other measures that the people of Kentucky are demanding,” Miller said.

A recent poll conducted by the U.S. Justice Action Network showed that 73 percent of Kentuckians support eliminating "money bail"--or monetary bail payments to secure release--and 91 percent said the state needed to break down barriers that keep people with criminal records from finding jobs.

The bill doesn't address either of those issues, but would keep the state from keeping defendants detained if they can't afford to pay court costs.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters said he supports the legislation, taking inspiration from pioneers looking for a second chance in Kentucky.

“The difference that we have now in Kentucky is that there is no more new frontier to go to, there’s no land in the west that you can go to when you need that new start. People who need a new start, people who need a new beginning are going to do it right here. They’re doing it with us,” Venters said.

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