Work advancing on prison-industry partnership in Kentucky

The initiative is part of Senate Bill 120, which allows inmates to receive near private sector wages and job training

By James Mayse

OWENSBORO, Ky. — The head of the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said last week the state is progressing on its effort to create partnership with industries in state prisons, where inmates would receive near private sector wages and job training.

That initiative was part of Senate Bill 120, which was approved by legislators during the 2017 General Assembly. The bill has several components, including allowing jails to create "re-entry centers" of their own and allowing inmates to receive professional licenses.

John Tilley, secretary of the Justice Cabinet, said the goal of the bill is
John Tilley, secretary of the Justice Cabinet, said the goal of the bill is "training people for meaningful employment." (Photo/

John Tilley, secretary of the Justice Cabinet, said the goal of the bill is "training people for meaningful employment." A felony record is a barrier to employment, and officials have said previously the inability to obtain a job that pays a living wage increases the chances that a person with a felony will commit a new offense and return to prison.

Former Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown referred to having a felony record as "economic capital punishment" during a 2010 meeting with journalists on criminal justice issues.

The prison program requires an industry locating in a prison not compete in a way that would take away outside jobs. The industry must pay at or near private sector wages and must guarantee the inmate a job outside prison walls when the inmate is released.

The state has received federal approval to start a prison industry program, Tilley said. "I'm not surprised we don't have anything in place because it took a while to get the waiver done," he said.

Other states already have similar programs.

"The key is to have ... that job waiting for them upon release," Tilley said.

The state is negotiating with prospective companies about starting the program, he said.

"We're glad we're now able to move full-bore on it," Tilley said. The program will have an additional benefit of allowing inmates to make required restitution and child support payments while they are working in prison.

"We want to walk before we run" with the program, Tilley said. "We are looking at one facility" to start, with the possibility of expanding later.

"We are courting particular employers as we speak," he said.

Tilley said four full service jails that house state inmates are considering starting re-entry centers, which are programs where inmates will learn job skills and receive substance abuse training.

The state has to finish regulations governing the re-entry centers, and then will send out a request for proposals for agencies that want to provide services in the centers.

Not every full service jail will want or be able to have a re-entry center. "Jails by and large were never meant to house individuals long-term," Tilley said. "... Some simply don't have the physical space or the extra resources to invest."

Additional dollars to fund re-entry centers could come from "performance-based" additional dollars for jails that create such programs, Tilley said.

Jails in Hart and Simpson counties have started work release programs, which were part of the bill. The bill allows some state inmates in county jails to work jobs outside the jail, for standard wages.

"I know we have at least 13 jail inmates working at Kentucky Chrome" in Horse Cave, Tilley said.

The state has also implemented a provision of the bill that required state licensing boards to not deny a professional license to an person with a felony, unless the board can demonstrate there is a connection between the felony and the type of professional license sought.

"There are numerous state boards that arbitrarily denied" licenses to people with felony records, Tilley said.

Going forward, Tilley said Gov. Matt Bevin and the Justice Cabinet will advocate for other criminal reforms in the 2019 legislative session. Criminal justice reforms like Senate Bill 120 improve public safety by reducing the possibility that a person released from incarceration will commit a new crime, Tilley said. The effort will also safe the state money in incarceration costs.

"If we could return to funding levels from just a decade ago, I could return $200 million ... that would be spent in incarceration," Tilley said.

©2018 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

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