By Andrew McNeill
This is a political post paid for by Americans for Prosperity.
Americans from all across the country have taken part throughout April in Second Chance Month — a nationwide effort created to raise awareness about the many barriers facing millions of Americans with a criminal record.
In a proclamation, the White House said that Second Chance Month is about the American belief in redemption – “that those who have fallen can work toward brighter days ahead.”
Here in Kentucky, folks have been marking the occasion in a number of ways. From posting messages on social media, to writing letters to their elected officials, to attending local events on criminal justice reform, Second Chance Month is a time to show how providing those in our criminal justice system with a path forward can enhance public safety and strengthen our local communities.
It wasn’t always this way.
For years, Kentucky followed the lead of other states in thinking that keeping our communities safe meant filling up our jails and prisons. As a result of this approach, our state may soon spend over $600 million a year on our correctional facilities.
But things have begun to change, as a growing number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are realizing that it’s possible to hold wrongdoers accountable while also being better stewards of taxpayer dollars and offering a second chance to those who have earned one.
In other words, they’re working toward creating a justice system that is smart on crime — and soft on taxpayers. We can look to other states to see that this is possible, including neighboring Ohio, which reduced its recidivism rate 20 percent between 2005 and 2013 after expanding addiction and mental health treatment for the formerly incarcerated.
Earlier this year, Bluegrass State lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 57, which will expand the ability for Kentuckians convicted of non-violent felonies to expunge their criminal records after a determined period of time.
SB 57 builds on a 2016 expungement law that has allowed about 2,000 Kentuckians with a criminal record to remove a scarlet letter from their public records after showing that they are contributing positively to society and no longer pose a threat to themselves and those around them.
Expungement laws are necessary because research shows that having a criminal record creates a barrier to employment. According to a 2014 New York Times poll, men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54.
One recent study found that the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is nearly five times higher than the general population. Making it easier for folks to reenter the workforce will make our local communities safer because we know that individuals with criminal records who are gainfully employed are less likely to be rearrested.
Fortunately, Kentucky lawmakers agree.
The bipartisan sponsors Sens. Jimmy Higdon and Gerald Neal are just two of the many lawmakers from opposing political parties who voted in favor of SB 57 this year.
Additionally, it’s hard to think of a better advocate for commonsense criminal justice reform than Gov. Matt Bevin. Since taking office, Gov. Bevin has made it a priority to remove barriers of opportunity for those looking to reenter society. Besides signing into law two expungement bills, Gov. Bevin has also issued executive orders barring government employers from arbitrarily denying a job based solely on a previous criminal conviction.
Just as important, Gov. Bevin helped establish a new Reentry Division within the Department of Corrections that will focus on rehabilitating prisoners struggling with substance abuse and equipping with them vital job skills so they have the best chance to succeed upon being released. And he’s partnered with the Safe Streets & Second Chances program to identify and begin implementing new approaches to Kentucky’s reentry system.
With the vast majority of Kentuckians in our correctional facilities eventually returning to our communities, it’s on us to do our part to remove unnecessary barriers preventing them from reaching their full potential.
That’s the call to action for us all this Second Chance Month.
Andrew McNeill is Kentucky state director at Americans for Prosperity.