During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I participated in a national panel on criminal justice reform with like-minded, conservative governors Nathan Deal of Georgia and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.
It was an honor for me to discuss how best to create second chance opportunities with these two veterans of criminal justice reform.
When I was elected as governor in 2015, it was my intention that Kentucky would also be making significant changes to our criminal justice system. That is exactly what we have been doing.
With a rising prison population, severely depleted workforce participation rates, and the highest percentage in the nation of children with at least one incarcerated parent, we unfortunately had plenty of room for improvement. For years Kentucky had maintained an outdated, “lock-em-up and throw away the key” approach. That was unsustainable from both a societal and financial cost and we were determined to shake up the status quo.
Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities—doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement.
We began by making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to get back to work, passing a comprehensive felony expungement bill that allows certain former offenders, who have been crime-free for five years, to wipe their slates clean.
We also passed a bold reentry initiative that provides for more job training and eliminates regulatory barriers to employment for people with criminal records.
Our administration implemented “ban the box” for state government agencies to give ex-offenders a fair shot at employment, and launched the “Justice to Journeyman” initiative, which paves a pathway for inmates and detained youth to earn nationally recognized credentials in a skilled trade. Kentucky’s success as the center for engineering and manufacturing excellence in America is only being enhanced as we pioneer changes in criminal justice policy.
This week, I will share with national forums in Washington, D.C. and Texas how Kentucky’s new policies are fostering economic opportunity and putting Kentuckians back to work.
At the latter forum, I will be joined by Iowa’s new governor, Kim Reynolds. She, too, is determined to improve pathways to opportunity for those who have made mistakes, particularly those with addiction and mental health issues.
I will encourage her, and all governors, to tackle criminal justice reform policy with a sense of urgency and purpose. Some political advisors still speak passionately about being “tough on crime”, and caution that supporting criminal justice reform policy could be politically dangerous at election time.
This is a ridiculous notion. After all, more than 90 percent of those now incarcerated will eventually re-enter society.
We either pave a path towards second opportunities or we settle for recidivism. Which is better for our communities?
If we want voters to continue electing conservatives, we must offer serious solutions. We can no longer afford to cling to the outdated idea that prison alone is the only way to hold people accountable for their crimes. Instead, we need to take a smarter, more measured approach to criminal justice. More than simply removing lawbreakers from society, we must also rehabilitate and re-assimilate them back into society.
In the midst of national division in many fronts, a community of conservative governors are uniting to build trust and offer real solutions to some of our country’s greatest problems. Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities—doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement.
America has always been a land of opportunity and second chances. When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits.