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At Capitol, Sweeping Changes To Criminal Justice Reform Bill


A sweeping criminal justice bill has been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly. It aims to provide workforce training for state prisoners, fight drug addiction and increase penalties for some crimes.

The bill would also ease restrictions on state licensure boards and hiring authorities that bar people with criminal records from getting a license or a job.

But provisions in a draft version of the legislation that called for eliminating the money bail requirement and easing certain felony thresholds did not make the final cut.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville and the bill’s sponsor, said the measure will improve public safety.

“You get at improving public safety not just by punishing people who commit crimes against Kentuckians and against the commonwealth, but also making sure that they don’t do it a bunch of times, that they don’t repeat,” Westerfield said.

The bill is the product of Gov. Matt Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which was created last year and includes 23 state officials, lawmakers and policy advocates from around the state.

Under the measure, Kentucky’s Department of Corrections would be able to lease out the labor of state prisoners. Those serving time for Class D or Class C felonies could be approved to participate in work release programs outside of prison walls.

“That gives those inmates an opportunity to work, to learn job skills, to get trained and be ready to enter the workforce when their time is done,” Westerfield said.

The bill creates an “angel initiative,” directing local police departments to refer people to drug treatment programs and not place them under arrest if they voluntarily seek assistance.

“That’s a commonsense thing; why wouldn’t you ever want to give someone help who’s willingly asking for it on their own,” Westerfield said.

The bill also creates a reentry drug supervision pilot program for those convicted of low-level drug-related felonies. Participants would receive random drug tests, participate in therapy sessions and eventually maintain full-time employment, training or education.

Hoping for Consensus

A draft of the legislation sought to eliminate monetary bail for poor Kentuckians accused of crimes and raise the threshold for theft and child support debts to be considered felonies, but the provisions have been deleted.

According to the Administrative Offices of the Courts, in 2016 about 51,000 people accused of crimes were unable to post a money bond. Among that population, 37,000 were considered “low-risk” and stayed an average of 109 days in jail, costing county jails roughly $100 million.

During a hearing on the bill last week, county officials expressed concern that the provisions would shift costs to counties and force prosecutors and judges to release accused people who shouldn’t be.

“There was just a lot of debate and we couldn’t find consensus on that,” Westerfield said. “We have to be realistic with the impact it’s going to have on the commonwealth and counties.”

Senate President Robert Stivers predicted that the changes would make the bill more palatable to county officials.

“I think they’ve made some adjustments and some corrections on issues that have given people some reservation about it,” said Stivers. “With that, I think it’s probably getting some momentum and likelihood of success.”

The bill would increase penalties for several crimes, including a raise in the parole eligibility for those those convicted of killing police officers or emergency responders to at least 85 percent of the sentence imposed.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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