Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rollins sees bill to raise dropout age finally become law, looks toward hearing for his bill to abolish death penalty

By Megan Smiddie
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

In the legislative session that ended Tuesday night, Rep. Carl Rollins of Midway proposed a bill to abolish Kentucky’s death penalty, which went nowhere, but he passed or helped pass several other bills, including one to raise the school dropout age to 18.

Rollins, left, said it was his first time to sponsor the death-penalty measure, but “A bill like this is introduced every year.” The Democrat said he does not see it as politically risky.

“I don’t care,” he said in an interview. “It’s one of those things that I can defend on three different levels and most likely better than any of my opponents. . . . It’s not fair, it costs too much and it’s just not good law.”

According to Rollins, the death penalty costs $1 million to $2 million more than a life sentence, and people on death row are mostly poor and cannot afford good attorneys. “They make mistakes,” he said. “The University of Illinois recently found people on death row to be innocent, and prosecutors don’t make equitable decisions.”

Rollins, who attends Midway Christian Church, said his religion also played a role in his decision to take on the death penalty, but his motive was broader than that. “It goes against the basic moral beliefs of society,” he said.

The bill had seven co-sponsors: five liberal Democrats, mainly from Louisville, and Republicans Julie Adams of Louisville David Floyd of Bardstown. It was House Bill 48.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, never posted the bill for the committee to consider, but Rollins said Tilley told him that it would get a hearing during the interim between the 2013 and 2014 sessions. The interim committees’ primary purpose is to provide a discussion of issues relevant to the future of the state.

Rollins said no one approached him to propose the bill, but once he did, many people told him they wanted to support it. “I’ve had a few disturbing emails,” he said, “but most people I talk to want to support it.”

However, a poll taken for The Courier-Journal in January found that 67 percent of Kentucky adults support the death penalty and only 26 percent oppose it. This month, only 30 percent of people in a self-selecting survey by the newspaper said Kentucky will ever drop the death penalty. The other 69 percent said capital punishment will never be abolished because “support for the death penalty is too strong,” as the survey put it.

After five years of trying, Rollins saw another major bill he supported get passed into law. It will eventually keep Kentucky students enrolled in school until age 18.

Gov. Steve Beshear signs the dropout bill. From left are Rollins; Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg; former Sen. David Karem, D-Louisville; Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris; Jane Beshear; Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg; Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, chairman of the Senate Education Committee; Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, majority floor leader; House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg; Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro; and House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville.
Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, school districts will be able to increase their dropout age to 18, and if it is raised in 55 percent of the districts, it will be required statewide. The current dropout age, 16 with parents’ consent, was established in 1920.

Rollins, chairman of the House Education Committee, said it is too important a decision for young students to make. “People need as much education as they can get,” he said.

Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, chief sponsor of the House version of the bill, agrees. “It is disappointing to see parents let our kids drop out so easily.” Greer said  the bill was personal to him because his father was a high-school dropout: “He was a fine man, but I think what he regretted most was not getting a high school diploma.”

Greer said statistics show that high school dropouts are more likely to turn to crime and end up in jail. Rollins said Kentucky’s dropout rate is better than it has been in the past, at 23 to 24 percent, but that it is still too high. He said that his goal for the bill is to continue to lower that rate.

Greer said the bill had many big supporters including the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. It was also a priority for Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane Beshear.

Rollins was the prime sponsor of several bills that easily passed the House but died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Among them were measures to require background checks and fingerprinting of employees of long-term care facilities, and encourage schools to use strategic placement of food in cafeterias to promote healthy food choices by students.

He was among 15 co-sponsors of a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights of felons (except those guilty of treason, intentional killing, sex crimes or bribery) after serving out their sentences, probation or parole. The bill passed the House 75-25 but went nowhere in the Senate.

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