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Op-Ed: Rebuild Ky. Economy by Doubling Down on Criminal Justice Reform

The following op-ed is written by Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center Executive Director Beth Davisson 

As Kentuckians begin to receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, it's getting easier to think about the road ahead and recovery. A vital part of that will involve rebuilding our economy and strengthening our workforce. In particular, two actions will be critical to moving Kentucky forward: reforming the criminal justice system and expanding fair chance hiring.

As a result of the pandemic, more than 246,688 Kentuckians have left the labor force and stopped looking for work. As of July 2020, Kentucky ranked 50 out of the 50 states for labor force participation. We are last in the nation when it comes to citizens taking part in the workforce. Before the pandemic hit in March, Kentucky ranked 42nd.

At the same time, we have industries booming in Kentucky and desperately in need of workers. While not a complete list, the Kentucky Chamber has collected more than 92,000 active job postings from employers across the state in the past several months. As we look at Kentucky's economic recovery from the pandemic, we must remain focused on workforce participation. Kentucky businesses need workers, and getting them back on the job is key to recovery. 

Low workforce participation is often linked to low-level crimes such as drug-related offenses, high levels of recidivism, and overdose deaths. There is also a strong link between employment and recovery; for example, as the nation's unemployment rate increased by 1 percentage point, the opioid death rate increased by 3.6 percent. That clearly illustrates the multiple benefits of reforming our criminal justice system to help people get back into work while protecting public safety.

The Chamber's "Kentucky Comeback" campaign provides a framework for tackling these challenges. The campaign aims to transform the state's approach to drug addiction and criminal justice while massively reducing barriers to re-entry – helping people struggling with substance use disorder and assisting businesses in developing recovery-friendly work environments. By helping people get jobs, the campaign will help break the cycles of addiction, incarceration, and unemployment that trap far too many Kentuckians.

There is also an important public safety element to the campaign. As community leaders, employers should be doing everything in their power to reduce crime, and getting a job after prison reduces reoffending rates by more than one third.

Kentuckians recognize the importance of changing the system. Earlier this year, a Kentucky Chamber survey found that 91 percent of Kentuckians agreed that barriers for people coming out of prison should be broken down so they can get jobs, support their families, and reduce their reliance on government services.

There is also an overall financial benefit to these reforms. As COVID-19 continues to devastate our economy, we have to find ways to save money and spend tax dollars more effectively. Reducing our incarcerated population with such measures as sentencing and bail reform would save much-needed public funds for critical services like education and health care. A 1,000-inmate reduction in the prison population, for example, would result in $12 million in savings, according to Governor Andy Beshear.

The vaccines are here. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We now have to focus on rebuilding our economy and our society quickly and fairly. With so many people needlessly locked up in jails or locked out of jobs, criminal justice reform and fair chance hiring are critical to getting Kentucky back on its feet.

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