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Kentucky’s Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform

| July 25, 2017

The State of Kentucky has exhibited tremendous leadership in the area of criminal justice reform.  Over the last few years the State has endeavored to thoroughly examine its adult and juvenile justice systems, resulting in sweeping, effective reforms.

While perhaps not the first chapter in the story of Kentucky’s reform efforts, 2014 saw one of the state’s first significant steps in the area of juvenile justice reform when it convened a task force to undertake a comprehensive study of the juvenile justice system.  The Legislature passed a number of the task force’s recommended reforms.

These reforms included a directive to the Governor’s Cabinet to “develop a fiscal incentive program to fund local efforts that enhance public safety while reducing juvenile justice system costs,” to allocate 90% of the fiscal incentive program funds to “renewable, competitive grants to be awarded to judicial districts, or groups of judicial districts, for the purpose of establishing community-based sanction and treatment programs that provide alternatives to out-of-home placement.” The remaining 10% is to be directed toward the remaining judicial districts “to fund individualized interventions on an occasional basis to avoid commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice for a limited number of youth.”

The Legislature also created a Juvenile Justice Oversight Council “for the purpose of providing independent review of the state juvenile justice system and providing recommendations to the General Assembly.” The Council is tasked with the “collect[ion] and review performance measurement data, and continue to review the juvenile justice system for changes that improve public safety, hold youth accountable, provide better outcomes for children and families, and control juvenile justice costs.”

In just a few short years, these juvenile justice reforms have borne much fruit. The number of youth placed out-of-home and away from their families has decreased by 43% over the last two years. The data shows that this decline is driven by fewer youth who’ve committed low-level crimes, namely misdemeanors and probation violations, being remanded into state custody – allowing the state to focus its resources on the most serious juvenile offenders.  Moreover, these reforms are expected to save taxpayers around $24 million in the first five years.

In 2016 the legislature built on the success of its juvenile justice reforms by reforming expungement laws to allow a person to petition for the expungement of their first qualifying felony conviction. Moreover, an individual may petition to expunge multiple qualifying felonies arising from the same incident.

2016 was also the year Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin created the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (CJPAC), with a charge to undertake a comprehensive review of Kentucky’s criminal justice system and to advance evidence-based reforms.  In its first year, CJPAC recommended a number of important reforms focused on re-entry and the reduction of the state’s recidivism rate that were taken up during the 2017 Legislative Session. This reform package passed through the Senate on a 35 to 1 vote, and through the House on a vote of 85 to 9, with Governor Bevin taking great joy in signing it into law.

Many of these reforms were aimed at helping offenders enter the workforce and included a roll back of the blanket occupational licensing prohibition for applicants with felony convictions. Now, a licensing authority must demonstrate a direct relation between the applicant’s past criminal conduct and the occupation for which he/she seeks a license. A due process mechanism is now in place for an individual who the licensing authority determines to be unqualified to appeal. The Legislature also authorized the implementation of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, that will provide prisoners with additional job training and fair compensation toward their restitution or other financial obligations.

The re-entry reform package also creates options for those who cannot pay their court fees or who suffer with substance abuse issues. Where before these reforms were enacted, an arrest warrant would be issued for any individual who failed to pay court costs, and now an individual is simply served with a notice to show cause and afforded the opportunity to demonstrate to the court that they are indigent and unable to pay. The court can then adjust the court fees accordingly.  The legislature also created a 4-year reentry substance abuse pilot program, where individuals suffering from addiction who qualify for the program receive additional treatment, training, and increased monitoring.  Program participants are on probation the entirety of the 12-month program, and regular evaluations are performed to determine the overall success of the program.

With these reforms in place, Kentuckians get to take even greater pride in their communities, which are now safer as a result. Lawmakers across the Commonwealth are to be commended for their contributions to Kentucky’s story of reform. However, for all these accomplishments there is still more chapters to write, and I have no doubt that for Kentucky, the best is yet to come.

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JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.

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