U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth and U.S. Senator Rand Paul look on as Louisville Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds discussing criminal justice reform. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

A bipartisan group of government and community leaders called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stop holding up a vote on a federal criminal justice reform bill.

Louisville Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds host a press conference Monday. The participants included: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.; U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth; State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-33; Stephen Reily, founder of the Urban League’s Reily Reentry Project; and Kent Oyler, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc.

Reynolds said they wanted to show a united front for federal and state criminal justice reform. The issue, she said, crosses political and social boundaries because having an criminal record impacts so many aspects of a person’s life from employment to housing. 

“I think it is important that where we can find opportunities to partner that we do it. We can be an example for this country on how people can work together on specific issues to move the needle for the people who need us the most. The Urban League is about building bridges,” she added.

During the press conference, Yarmuth and Paul both urged McConnell to allow a vote on the First Step Act, a package of prisoner-reentry reforms that has bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of President Donald Trump.

The federal criminal reform legislation passed the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in May by a 360–59 margin, but McConnell has yet to call it up for a vote in the Senate. If he did, Paul said, it would receive overwhelming support from both parties.

Paul said Republicans cannot call themselves the party of family values if it continues to support laws that keep nonviolent offenders from their families.

When asked if he thought McConnell’s reluctance had to do with not want to seem soft on crime, Paul said the legislation would actually help public safety by getting more violent offenders of the street.

“I always looked at it this way. If you have a whole lot of people in jail for nonviolent crimes, you don’t have as much space in jail for people who commit violent crimes,” Paul explained. “I’m for lessening some penalties for crimes. I’m actually for increasing some penalties for violent crimes. I think you can be for both.”

Yarmuth added that the current federal justice system discriminates against minorities and poor people. He said the disparity is going to get worse unless lawmakers take action and used the national movement to legalize marijuana as an example.

“With half of our incarcerated population there for drug-related crimes, we know what the magnitude of this problem is. Interestingly, we now have people in jail for doing something that is legal in a third of the country right now, and that’s going to increase. There is a kind of disconnect between what we’re allowing out in society and what we have people in prison for. It is becoming increasingly shameful,” Yarmuth said.

Reynolds urged Kentucky residents to contact McConnell’s office and to lobby state lawmakers for greater changes to Kentucky’s expungement process, which she said it too expensive and complicate for most people.

In 2016, the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed individuals convicted of most Class D felonies to have those convictions cleared from their record five years after their sentence is complete, so long as they have not been convicted of another crime during that time.  But it costs a person $500 to start the expungement process.

Reynolds said the Urban League has helped about 2,000 ex-offenders to expunge their records through its Reily Reentry Program, which is being funded by Urban League board member Stephen Reily. However, Reynolds said the program is just a Band-Aid. 

Ultimately, she said, the Urban League would like to see automatic expungement for some non-violent crimes.

Neal told the crowd that expungement will be an issue in the upcoming session of the Kentucky General Assembly. He said he would like to see the cost bought down and the list of convictions eligible for expungement increased.