Criminal-justice reform legislation announced at a press conference in the Kentucky State Capitol Feb. 14 has the support of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK), the public policy arm of Kentucky’s four bishops.
The press conference announcing Senate Bill (SB) 120 was sponsored by Governor Matt Bevin, Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, Ky., Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel J. Venters and members of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition. The CCK is a member of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.
The bill, introduced on Feb. 9 by Sen. Westerfield, Senate Judiciary chairman, addresses a range of issues related to criminal justice.
One of its provisions aims to make the transition smoother for felons who are released from prison and seeking employment, said Jason Hall, executive director of the CCK.
SB 120 would remove an “effective ban” against former felons who seek professional licenses from state boards, Hall said. Officials of the state boards could instead review applications on a case-by-case basis.
The bill would also prevent individuals from being imprisoned if they are financially unable to pay court-related costs.
According to a press release about the Feb. 14 conference, the legislation grew from discussions of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (CJPAC), a bipartisan council created by Bevin last summer. Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, Ky., is a member of that group.
In an interview prior to the press conference, Hall said he was encouraged by the legislation and the CCK “certainly supports the bill.”
“We see this bill as a step on a much longer journey. This bill does not go nearly as far as we would like to see. But it does have some very good reentry provisions,” he said.
Hall emphasized that the proposal would not, as some have suggested, take away the ability to arrest and incarcerate those who deserve such actions.
“We over-incarcerate to such an extent (that) it is not sustainable and (is) counterproductive,” he said, noting that he has personal experience with incarcerated people.
Hall ministers to inmates at the Franklin County Jail and said a lot of the people he visits are women.
“Many are mothers with small children. They are there because they couldn’t pay a fine,” he said.
While a mother serves her sentence, he said, the child is with a grandparent or other family member. Or, as is often the case, the children go into the care of the state, he said.
“It’s bad for the child because it breaks the family up. … And it’s tremendously costly to tax payers, all because a person did not have the money to pay a fine. It’s not good public policy,” Hall said.
Introduction of the reentry reform legislation comes just two weeks after the governor issued an executive order that seeks to give people with criminal records equal opportunity when applying for a job in state government.
Bevin’s order calls for the removal of a section on job applications for positions in the state government’s executive branch. That section asked applicants to indicate if they have ever been convicted of a felony.
Hall hailed Bevin’s executive action as “an important leadership step.”
“A felony in one’s past should not forever ban one from employment. There should be redemption. There should be a point where someone pays their debt and moves forward with their lives,” he said.