Kentucky has much to be proud of, but we cannot be blind to the commonwealth’s greatest challenges, and we must be honest about failed policies that hold us back.
Over the past decade, I have become immersed in the work of the Hope Center, which began as a safe housing shelter for the homeless, and has since grown into a full-service recovery center that treats drug addiction and mental health issues and provides transportation, health care, employment assistance and rehabilitation and reentry programming for individuals who have been incarcerated.
While many states have seen a decline in their jail and prison populations, Kentucky’s continues to climb. Part of that is because of Kentucky’s abysmal recidivism rate: almost 40 percent of the people who leave incarceration in Kentucky are returning to state custody. Offenders often are returned to society with untreated drug addiction and no prospects or training to find a job, improve their education or secure housing. So what do they do? Return to crime and return to prison, which means our communities are less safe and the taxpayers continue paying into a revolving door of incarceration without getting the public safety return they’ve been promised. We can, and must, do better.
Senate Bill 120, which recently passed the Kentucky Senate with an overwhelming vote of 35-1, would help break this cycle of failure and form a pathway for offenders to find jobs and turn away from crime.
Most notably, this bill would remove government restrictions on licensing for certain jobs so returning citizens have a pathway to employment. In just the construction business alone, for example, you have to secure a license (basically a government-issued permission slip) to be an HVAC technician, a radon inspector, a land surveyor, and more, and right now a person with a criminal record is often barred from obtaining such a license. This bill would eliminate the automatic government prohibition and replace it with a system that puts these decisions in the hands of the licensing board. In other words, it gets government out of the way and will hopefully put more people back to work.
Additionally, this legislation helps to address the root cause of much criminal activity: drug addiction. SB 120 creates a pilot program to provide more drug treatment and more intensive supervision for those on parole, which is critical when Kentucky finds itself submerged in the heroin and opioid epidemic and as prescription pill abuse ravages our communities. If we aren’t treating the root of the evil, then we will simply keep returning better criminals to society rather than better citizens.
The collateral consequences of our failure to provide adequate reentry programming for returning citizens are significant. Right now, Kentucky is 47th in workforce participation. In addition, Kentucky also has the nation’s highest percentage of children who have had an incarcerated parent.
In contrast, states from Texas to Maryland, Georgia to Ohio have passed aggressive criminal justice reforms that have reduced crime, incarceration and taxpayer costs simultaneously. Our neighbor Ohio, which passed improved reentry programming several years ago, lowered the state recidivism rate from roughly 40 percent to 27 percent.
Let’s not be left behind. Pass SB 120 now.
Don Ball serves as co-chair of the Recovery Kentucky Task Force and as chair of the Hope Center Board of Directors.