Politics & Government

Bevin promotes bill to smooth felons’ return to society

Gov. Matt Bevin, flanked by legislators and members of his cabinet, spoke about Senate Bill 120 on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, at a news conference in Frankfort.
Gov. Matt Bevin, flanked by legislators and members of his cabinet, spoke about Senate Bill 120 on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, at a news conference in Frankfort. John Cheves

Gov. Matt Bevin and key legislators on Tuesday introduced an expansive plan to make it easier for felons to re-enter society after their release from prison.

Senate Bill 120 would let some felons hold jobs while incarcerated, either through companies invited to operate inside prisons or work-release programs at local jails; reduce the time that compliant offenders serve on probation or parole; prevent defendants from being jailed because they are unable to pay court costs; and create a pilot project similar to drug court to supervise newly released felons with addictions.

Perhaps most important, supporters said, the bill would remove the automatic ban on felons seeking professional and occupational licenses from state boards, instead giving the boards discretion to set their own standards.

“We just want to make sure that if you’ve done what we asked you to do in a Kentucky prison, when you get back out, that we’ve offered a path to success for you to take advantage of. You’ve got a job. You’ve got a support structure. You’ve got sobriety. Those things add up to stronger families, lower cost to taxpayers and a safer commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, the bill’s sponsor.

On average, the state pays $17,700 to house each of its 23,777 inmates in a prison or local jail. Kentucky’s recidivism rate — the rate at which felons released from prison are re-incarcerated for a new offense within three years — has risen from 36 percent in 2008 to 44 percent last year.

Westerfield’s bill resulted from nearly a year of work by Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which the governor has asked to study the state’s criminal code and suggest improvements.

The bill’s supporters acknowledged that it does not include additional ideas debated by the council, such as raising the $500 threshold at which theft becomes a felony in Kentucky. Be patient and wait to see what other bills are introduced during the next year or two as the council continues, they said.

“We’re starting with the low-hanging fruit. But there is a whole lot of fruit left on the tree,” Bevin said.

Among its proposals, the bill would:

▪  Allow the state, once it obtains the necessary federal approval, to lease out the labor of consenting state inmates to private companies that would set up operations on prison property. Inmates would be paid a fair market wage, with mandatory deductions for child support, victims restitution and other debts they owe. Companies could not use prison labor to reduce their existing workforce or compete with outside workers already employed in the region.

The state would continue to run its own vocational program, Kentucky Correctional Industries, that employs more than 550 inmates at four prisons, Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said. Inmates who are allowed to work behind bars have the chance to support their families and settle their debts, Tilley said, as well as learning self-discipline and job skills.

▪  Permit certain Class D and Class C felons serving their time in local jails to participate in work-release programs, with the approval of the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections. Certain state inmates also could be sentenced to a day-reporting program at a local jail, letting them spend part of their time in the community while they receive supervision and services at the jail.

▪  Allow certain felons on parole or probation gradually to reduce the time they must serve under supervision if they comply with program rules, including mandatory check-ins, restitution payments and no new arrests. The state’s probation and parole caseload has steadily climbed from just under 20,000 people in 2000 to more than 45,000 in 2015.

▪  Prohibit judges from jailing a defendant for failing to pay court costs if an examination of the defendant’s financial condition — including employment, public assistance, homelessness, health problems and dependents — indicates an inability to pay.

▪  Give judges more discretion on when to issue an arrest warrant after a defendant fails to appear for a court appearance.

▪  Require the Department of Corrections to begin a four-year pilot project by March 2018 that would supervise addicts as they are released from prison. The project would provide counseling, group therapy and drug testing. Parolees who face revocation could be referred to this program, rather than go back to prison, if they are determined to have an underlying substance abuse problem.

▪  Establish a Criminal Justice Reinvestment Fund to collect any savings the state realizes from the bill. The fund would be used to help pay for the addiction treatment and other re-entry services in the bill, with remaining portions given to the state’s crime victims’ compensation fund and local jails.

Westerfield’s bill is backed by Kentucky Smart on Crime, a collection of conservative and liberal lobbying groups that support “common-sense alternatives to unnecessary incarceration.”

Kate Miller of the Kentucky ACLU, which is a Smart on Crime member, said Tuesday that the state needs to guide felons back into the community rather than simply dumping them outside the prison gates.

“We can all agree that our justice system is out of date, and it needs to be modernized,” Miller said. “We need a justice system that functions less like a maze and more like a road map. This bill is a great step forward in terms of providing people with that road map.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics