- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - People convicted of crimes could no longer be automatically denied an occupational license issued by the state under sweeping reforms proposed by Republican legislators.

Kentucky has at least 60 boards and commissions that hand out licenses required for various jobs, including air-conditioning contractors, barbers, bus drivers, landscapers, security guards and art therapists. Right now, those boards can deny a license solely because someone has a criminal conviction.

Senate Bill 120 would only allow board members to deny a license request if they could show a connection between a person’s conviction and the license being sought. People could plead their case before the board in person, and they could appeal the decision to the circuit court.

“The government is having to hand out permission slips to go to work, and in the process standing in the way of innovation of economic development,” said Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill’s sponsor. “Applicants have a chance to demonstrate why they deserve it. And why don’t they deserve it? They’ve done exactly what we have asked people in the criminal justice system to do. They broke the law, they were punished, they went home and didn’t do it again.”

The bill is part of a larger effort to reform Kentucky’s criminal justice system, an idea pushed by Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul during his presidential campaign and embraced by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing people with certain nonviolent felony convictions to expunge their criminal records. And earlier this month, Bevin signed an executive order that said applicants for state jobs no longer have to disclose criminal convictions on initial applications.

“A job is one of the best ways for a person to not fall back into recidivism, a chance for them to be able to rebuild their lives,” Bevin said.

Much of the bill is aimed at reducing the state’s prison and jail population, most of which are overflowing and putting stress on local and state budgets. People could no longer be put in jail because they could not afford to pay fines or court costs - unless prosecutors could prove people refused to pay even though they had the means to do it.

The measure also would allow some drug addicts to come to police departments for help without fear of being arrested or prosecuted on drug possession charges, with some exceptions for repeat offenders or those who have other outstanding warrants. And it would give people more credit for good behavior while out on parole or supervised release, and begin the process of letting private companies use inmate labor behind prison walls.

The bill brought together a strange coalition of advocates and politicians. At one point, Bevin stood arm-in- arm with Kate Miller, program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. Bevin and the ACLU have clashed repeatedly during his time in office, including over the ACLU’s lawsuit seeking to force Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and a separate suit from the organization seeking to block a state law that requires women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound first.

“As you can imagine, we’re a group that does not agree on much, but we can all agree on the fact that our justice system is out of date and it needs to be modernized,” Miller said.

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