Op-Ed: Legislators Clean Up Kentucky's Outdated Criminal Justice Laws

By Ray Daniels

For many years, criminal justice advocates have been pleading with the General Assembly to take stock of outdated laws and make sure they meet the needs of Kentuckians today.

Many of these conversations have rightfully focused on how the criminal justice system approaches individuals in the strongholds of addiction. From these conversations, we have become more aware of the underlying factors that lead to incarceration and substance use and, on the flip side, what must be done to help them turn their lives around. As is the case with many issues facing our communities right now, much of the problem lies with our institutions and the policies and processes that govern them.

That’s why Kentucky Comeback, an initiative of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to transform our state’s approach to criminal justice and substance use, was proud to see the General Assembly pass several pieces of legislation this session that will give more Kentuckians a second chance at leading healthy, meaningful, productive lives.

In 2021, individuals in recovery and those advocating on their behalf worked alongside our legislators to make meaningful reforms, including:

  • Rep. Adam Bowling’s House Bill 7 establishes a “Recovery Ready” community framework. An advisory council made up of Kentucky leaders in health care, treatment, education, business, law enforcement and the public sector will work together to determine the comprehensive resources and services our cities, towns and counties need to be effective in preventing and treating substance use disorders. Then, they’ll take the next step to implement them so that Kentuckians in all 120 counties have equal opportunity to live addiction-free.
  • House Bill 497, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Moser, helps Kentuckians exiting the criminal justice system obtain ID so they can get back on their feet more easily. Having an ID is something that many of us take for granted, but for individuals who have served their time, an ID can help give them a second chance at taking the right path. The bill also tasks the Department of Corrections with issuing a “certificate of employability” to inmates who meet certain education and work requirements.
  • Rep. Ed Massey led the effort to pass House Bill 126, which raises the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000. When applying for jobs, a felony charge can rule you out immediately, even if you’ve turned your life around since then.
  • Sen. Whitney Westerfield’s “juvenile justice” legislation, Senate Bill 36, allows juvenile court judges to use their discretion when deciding to transfer individuals 14 and older to adult court for certain offenses. When we think about people who end up in the criminal justice system, there is perhaps no group more vulnerable than young adults. They are at a true crossroads in life; showing them that a second chance is available, if they want it, can make all difference in the world.

After years of being put on the backburner, it has been incredibly encouraging to see more criminal justice and recovery-related reforms move through our legislature. I’m grateful that we have the support of public officials who understand that our state will not make a comeback without addressing the complex and deeply rooted problems facing our communities.

Kentuckians who have served their time and are ready to get to work deserve the opportunity to do so, and that’s why cleaning up our criminal justice system should be a routine thing. If individuals in recovery are willing to do the hard work to break the chains of addiction, our system shouldn’t hold them down.

Kentucky Comeback will be working with our elected officials to continue crossing important items off the list. Just like a cluttered room, a little bit of spring cleaning can make all the difference moving forward.

Signer: Ray Daniels, Lexington, is the co-founder, president and CEO of Equity Solutions Group, a strategic sourcing company that serves technology-based clients in 13 states. He serves on several community boards, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.


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