Back SB 120: Work better than crime

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Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Senate Bill 120, legislation designed to lower barriers to legal employment for people coming out of state prisons and county jails with the goal of lowering the rate at which they return to prison.

It’s important, bipartisan legislation that can make Kentucky safer and reduce the $500 million-plus we spend on state prisons each year. Committee members should report it out favorably.

SB 120 grew out of the work of the bipartisan Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin last year, and the governor has stated his enthusiastic support for this legislation.

While not all of the council’s recommendations made it into the bill, some key elements remain:

▪ Eliminate automatic disqualification from being considered for a license for many occupations because of a criminal conviction. This denial prevents people emerging from prison from having access to many jobs that require licenses, including cutting hair, landscaping, driving a bus and others.

Licensure boards would, after reviewing the individual’s qualifications and background, retain the authority to deny a license, but a criminal conviction alone would not automatically prevent someone from obtaining a license needed for a job.

▪ Allow companies to set up shop in prisons to employ people serving time, as long as they are not taking jobs away from the local workforce. Also, enable work-release programs at local jails under specified conditions.

In both cases, the prisoners would work voluntarily and a portion of their earnings could be allocated to meet child support or victim-restitution payments and to defray the cost to the county or state of imprisonment.

The idea is fairly simple and is supported by years of research and experience: People who come out of prison with the ability to get legitimate work are much less likely to commit another crime and return to prison. They are able to support themselves and their families, pay taxes and become productive members of the larger society.

In Kentucky, about 25,000 people are incarcerated and 95 percent of them will be released one day. The challenge that SB 120 tries to address is whether they will walk out of confinement with some job experience and a legitimate shot at employment. Right now, with very limited options, about 40 percent of Kentucky prisoners wind up back behind bars within three years.

Some of the opposition to SB 120 centers on the objection that it is a “soft on crime” bill, more concerned about helping offenders than their victims. But the reality is that releasing people from prison with no training or skills to survive in the legitimate job market creates more victims.

For this and other reasons, groups that serve victims, such as the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, support SB 120.

“It will create safer communities when those who are released from prison can find jobs and housing rather than returning to a life of crime,” the directors of the two organizations wrote in a column published on Kentucky.com.

That’s an important goal, one both houses of the General Assembly should support.