By James Mayse | The Messenger-Inquirer

A criminal justice bill geared largely toward creating job training programs for felons both inside and outside prison ran into opposition this week, despite having the endorsement of Gov. Matt Bevin and other Bevin administration officials.

Senate Bill 120 was praised by Bevin and the secretaries of the Justice and Public Safety and Labor cabinets, who called it a necessary first step in helping people with felony convictions obtain employment and housing. But opponents of the bill said the effect would be to drive down wages for Kentuckians without felony records.

Members of the Senate judiciary committee members adjourned Thursday’s meeting without taking a vote on the bill.

The bill was based on recommendations of a governor’s task force that met last year to examine the state’s criminal code, with a goal of finding ways to reduce recidivism. At the start of Thursday morning’s hearing, Bevin said the bill provides needed job skills to offenders.

“One of the biggest issues is workforce development,” Bevin said. “Increasingly, this is a problem for us.”

The bill would provide opportunities for some felons to re-enter society, but would not take away punishment for people deserving it, Bevin said.

“We need the criminal justice system to crush those we need out of mainstream society,” Bevin said. “But there are tens of thousands of men and women who have screwed up, and they want another opportunity.

“I’m supportive of it, I think we need it,” Bevin said. “… Kentucky needs this, America needs it. The greatness of our nation is predicated on second chances and opportunity.”

Drug offenders make up most of the cases heard in criminal court, said Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“Nearly a fourth of those serving time are in for drug offenses,” he told the Senate’s judiciary committee. “A decade ago, we were told 80 percent of any (criminal) docket was drug-related.

“Now, most judges and prosecutors tell us 90 to 95 percent of any docket is drug-related,” Westerfield said.

The bill would allow Kentucky to create a Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, where inmates would make products for private companies while earning wages. A requirement of the program would be that it doesn’t take jobs away from businesses outside the prisons. Much of an inmate’s income would go to a state’s victim’s compensation fund, any child support payments the inmate owes, taxes, Social Security and “reasonable room and board fees.”

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield

“It’s a voluntary program, whereby defendants and inmates are held responsible for their financial obligations,” Westerfield said. The alternative, he said, is inmates “sitting there all day on our time.”

The bill would repeal a prior state law that kept people with criminal records from obtaining professional licenses. Instead, the bill sets up a system that allows a person to apply to the licensing authority, which can approve or deny the request.

“It still allows the board that issues the license to deny it” if the board chooses, Westerfield said.

Justice Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said a person with a felony can practice law in Kentucky, “but you can’t cut hair” because that would require a state cosmetology license.

Further provisions include giving the jails the option of creating re-entry programs for low-level offenders nearing release. The bill also authorizes the Department of Corrections to create a re-entry drug supervision program for inmates, and gives people who serve a year or two years of their sentences without incident “compliance credits” against their sentences.

The bill also would prohibit jailing a person if he or she is unable to pay court costs and fees, and would raise the number of days, either in a row or in a year, that a person would have to violate terms of their probation before probation is revoked.

Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey said the state currently makes it “more than hard” for felons to successfully re-enter society.

“For people who are willing to get out there and work and do their part, we have to give them a second chance,” Ramsey said. “All of the data shows if a person is released and does not have a job, does not have a home, does not have transportation and family support, they are going back” to prison.

The bill came under fire from Carrie Cox and Katherine Nichols, of Kentucky Voices for Crime Victims, who said victims were not represented on the governor’s task force.

“Victims can be revictimized with some of the things put in there,” Cox said. “… My biggest concern is we are letting people out, second-guessing judges and juries and not giving consideration to victims’ families.”

Westerfield said the task force included a person representing victims who joined the group in the fall.

Boone and Gallatin Circuit Judge Richard Brueggemann said he was concerned the bill could turn being a felon into a “protected status,” which would potentially make an employer who refuses to hire a felon open to legal liability.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican and retired police officer, took issue with the idea that many incarcerated inmates needed additional opportunities to re-enter society.

“(Bevin) made the comment that we shouldn’t just remove them from society,” Carroll said. “They are (incarcerated) to be punished. We keep forgetting that. Twenty four years of law enforcement experience tells me before most of them got to prison, they had a second, third or fourth chance.

“It’s a little bit insulting to me that we are taking that tone,” Carroll said. “Felons are not the victims. They knew what they were doing when they did it.”

Sen. Ray Jones II, a Pikeville Democrat and attorney, criticized the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s input on the task force.

“The Chamber does advocate for business, but the Chamber does not have a lot of expertise in criminal justice,” Jones said. The bill sets up a system where people who don’t have criminal records will compete with felons, who received job training under the bill, for work.

“When (felons) go into the job market, they are going to be a cheap source of labor,” Jones said.

He asked if the bill would result in “drawing wages down” for workers, who have to compete with felons “who are doing the job for half the money, or two-thirds of the money.”

Westerfield said: “This is not about finding cheap labor.” The goal, he said, is that felons “don’t end up back in prison.”

On Thursday afternoon, Westerfield said the committee would likely meet possibly two more times next week, so it’s likely the bill will be addressed in committee again.

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