Forbes: 'Tough On Crime' Means Tough On Work
By Jared Meyer
This year, many states enacted policies aimed at promoting work for those with criminal records. One of the leaders in this area is Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. In the following interview, Governor Bevin explains why the tough on crime mentality can keep people who are trying to rebuild their lives out of work.
Jared Meyer: What made you decide to make encouraging successful criminal reentry a central part of your term?
Matt Bevin: Criminal justice reform isn’t only an issue in Kentucky—it's an issue across America. And my view is that it all comes down to promoting work as a path toward redemption. Work is the absolute cornerstone of whether someone who comes out of prison will reform his or her life. Yet, there are countless roadblocks—many created by the government—that stand in the way of someone with a criminal record finding work.
Meyer: One area where the government keeps those with records out of work is through occupational licensing. How have you changed the ways that licensing boards can deny a license to someone with a criminal record?
Bevin: When I came into office, someone with a felony record was not able to be even considered for an occupational license, which is a prerequisite to work for nearly 30% of Kentuckians . That means someone with a felony record wasn’t allowed, for example, to cut hair in the state. That's ludicrous to me. And this restriction didn’t just apply to barbers—it also cut off promising careers in HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and countless other licensed occupations.
To see how to fix this problem, I encourage people to look at Kentucky Senate Bill 120—a bill that passed in 2017. This bill makes it possible for a person who has paid their debt to society to find work in licensed professions. Now, licensing boards must consider factors like evidence of rehabilitation, the relationships between the crime and working safely in the occupation, and time passed since the offense—all as part of a transparent process to issue licenses.
Meyer: Many people claim that the licensing boards need to reject applicants with criminal records to protect public safety. How do you respond to this?
Bevin: In many cases, the licensing boards are simply following the rules that the legislature set. In these cases, I say let’s change those antiquated and counterproductive laws and remove barriers to entry for licensed occupations. I’m not placing the blame on licensing board members who are simply doing their jobs—but we’ve made the process more transparent so that now it is easier for people with records to receive an occupational license and reassimilate into society by finding work.
Meyer: You don’t come across as someone who is tough on crime in the traditional sense.
Bevin: It's easy for policymakers to say that they’re tough on crime. But the just lock them up mentality doesn’t work when over 95% of people who are incarcerated will rejoin society. Every year, 600,000 individuals must try to rebuild their lives after leaving incarceration. No one wins when half of these individuals end up right back in custody. No one.
The losers in this system include the Kentucky taxpayers who are paying over $700 million a year to lock people up. As Governor, imagine if I had an extra $700 million to pay to educate people, to build new roads and bridges, to provide better equipment to law enforcement, or to give people a tax cut.
Meyer: What’s the most important thing you can tell other governors about reforming criminal reentry?
Bevin: We have the lowest unemployment rate we've had in decades. People are wondering where the workers are going to come from to fill these jobs. Well, the unemployment rate for those who have been incarcerated is nearly 30%, so that’s where we can find workers. Instead of embracing this population, for far too long we’ve created third-class citizens out of millions of Americans by stigmatizing them long after they've paid their debt to society. If they cannot work, then we’re going to pay for them when they go back to prison or when they become dependent on government programs. Work is the key to fixing many of our problems.
Every single state could make it easier for individuals with criminal records to receive occupational licenses once they’ve paid their debt to society . We're slowly but surely improving the reentry process here in Kentucky. And, ultimately, we’ll be better for doing so. We'll be administering criminal justice at a cost that we can afford. We’ll have less crime, less recidivism, and more people working.
Meyer: Last year, nearly a dozen states implemented laws aimed at removing unnecessary barriers to work faced by those with criminal records. Governor Bevin’s pro-work mentality is trending, with other state leaders across the country following his lead.
Jared Meyer is a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability and a senior fellow for the new economy at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter here.