Op-ed: Hopkinsville had key role in felony expungement bill

An expungement bill to ease barriers for individuals seeking to re-enter society after having been convicted of a single non-violent Class D felony, a legislative priority of the Kentucky Chamber of commerce, was signed into law on in April.  Read Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Dave Adkisson’s op-ed published in the Kentucky New Era on the role of key players from Hopkinsville below:

Last month, Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law a bill that will allow thousands of Kentuckians, previously convicted of low-level felonies who have turned their lives around, to have their records cleared and, more important, their paths cleared to become more productive citizens.

This commonsense bill was overwhelmingly supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the 2016 General Assembly. But it would not have succeeded without several key individuals in Hopkinsville.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed to hold hearings on the bill that had been introduced by a Louisville Democrat representative year after year. Westerfield was ultimately persuaded to change his previous opposition to the bill by the testimony of a 45-year-old convicted felon.

West Powell stole a car radio from a salvage yard when he was 18, pled guilty to a felony, served his time and lived a clean life for the next 27 years. Meanwhile, he struggled to find meaningful work because nearly every job application asks if you are a convicted felon, and many employers don’t want the legal risk of hiring a felon. Powell told his story at a Judiciary Committee meeting in Hopkinsville in October and it touched Westerfield, who would eventually shepherd the bill against great odds through the Kentucky Senate.

Justice Secretary John Tilley of Hopkinsville, who championed corrections reform as the former House Judiciary chair and more recently provided counsel and encouragement on the issue to Gov. Matt Bevin, was vocal in his support for expunging the records of certain convicted felons. He and Westerfield, both practicing lawyers, had traded ideas on the legislation during their long rides to Frankfort when both served in the General Assembly.

(I’ve joked with both of them that the Kentucky Chamber has proposed a “Bipartisan Carpooling Bill” that would require legislators from different parties to ride together back and forth to Frankfort so more legislators would get along, the way the two gentlemen from Christian County do. While we don’t expect a  law requiring carpooling, the idea of encouraging bipartisan cooperation is very appealing.)

Taylor Hayes, publisher of the Kentucky New Era, was the first businessperson to mention to me that the idea of felony expungement — clearing the record of certain felons who had not committed a violent or sexual crime — was really a workforce issue for businesses. The Kentucky Chamber, admittedly, had not previously considered the felony issue a “business” issue; rather, it was being pushed by social justice advocates and church groups. Hayes’ comment got our attention at the Kentucky Chamber and, after we started hearing from other employers facing workforce shortages, we took another look and eventually joined the advocates pushing for a felony expungement bill.

Elizabeth McCoy, president of Hopkinsville’s Planters Bank and former board chair of the Kentucky Chamber, had worked hard for several years to build a strong relationship between the Hopkinsville Chamber and the statewide Kentucky Chamber. Her encouragement led to an invitation for me to speak to the Christian County Chamber of Commerce and a meeting with community leaders about local workforce challenges. That’s where the idea was planted for the business community to take a fresh look at the issue.

All of that came together and the process of democracy worked. As the proposal advanced in Frankfort, the Kentucky Chamber was concerned about building protections for employers into the bill. Eventually, our board of directors weighed the issue and endorsed it. We organized a press conference with other business groups in the Capitol Rotunda to show our support for the bill. The governor joined the news conference and enthusiastically embraced the cause of felony expungement. With the endorsement of the business community and the support of the sitting governor, the bill had the momentum to pass the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Now the governor’s signature is on the bill, and it’s a new law in the commonwealth. After years of work, several stars had to line up for the law to become a reality — and this year, with this important issue, the formation began over Hopkinsville.

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