Advocates oppose Louisville anti-crime bill, saying it would increase incarcerations

Kentucky police union says the GOP legislation ‘gives us hope’

By: - January 16, 2024 6:14 pm

Recent Kentucky crime data shows the state had a decrease of 17.9% in homicides between 2021 and 2022. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)

Critics of an omnibus anti-crime bill filed by Louisville GOP lawmakers said on Tuesday the state should instead make investments to help keep Kentuckians out of jail — not send more of them to prison. 

House Bill 5, dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act” by sponsors, is a priority piece of Republican legislation that has undergone several changes since it was first publicly discussed in a September press conference. It includes a three strikes law for violent felonies; measures to prevent street camping near businesses, homes or other public spaces; and a felony carjacking statute. 

The bill, which has about 45 Republican co-sponsors, including Majority Whip Rep. Jason Nemes of Middletown, generated opposition even before it was officially filed in the House last week. 

On Tuesday, a collection of Kentucky groups such as the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Louisville Urban League, the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, Kentucky Council of Churches and more held a press conference criticizing the legislation.

Felicia Nu’Man, the director of policy for the Louisville Urban League and a former assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Jefferson County, said during the press conference there are “many bad policy positions” in the legislation. She added that carjacking is currently covered under an existing felony charge and argued that the “increasing of punishments and the reclassification of crimes is unnecessary.” 

“We cannot continue to incarcerate everyone. It is a purely remote emotional response,” Nu’Man said. “We should only incarcerate people for long periods of time when we are terrified of the violent acts they might commit — not because we are angry that they’re making our lives inconvenient and have a mental health problem like addiction.” 

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, which is a progressive think tank, found in 2022 that Kentucky jails were over capacity, with 21,831 people incarcerated in jails at the end of April, along with an additional 9,835 people incarcerated in state prisons. Recent Kentucky crime data shows the state had a decrease of 17.9% in homicides between 2021 and 2022, though initially reported inaccurately by Kentucky State Police

After filing the bill last week, the primary sponsor Rep. Jared Bauman, of Louisville, told reporters more co-sponsors are expected to join the legislation in upcoming weeks. 

“The first duty of any civilized society is to protect its honest citizens from those that prey on their innocent fellow citizens,” he said. “Crime is something that directly impacts every single Kentuckian and it is with a deep sense of purpose and value that we put forward the critical reforms in the Safer Kentucky Act.” 

The Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police plans to testify in favor of the legislation when it has a committee hearing. The organization expressed support for the bill, saying in a statement that it “not only addresses many of the issues we are seeing each day but gives us hope that violent offenders or those who poison our communities with drugs will have to answer for their crimes with real consequences.” 

However, Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, told reporters last week that the bill is not focused on “what really makes Kentucky safe.” He pointed out Kentucky’s high incarceration rate and said the General Assembly should focus on investments to help Kentuckians dealing with substance abuse disorders, mental health, lack of affordable housing and more instead of increasing criminal penalties and creating new crimes. During this session, the General Assembly will decide the state budget for the next two years. 

“We already have sufficient laws on the books,” Njuguna said. “In fact, we have a law known as the persistent felony offender statute, where people are already subject to enhanced penalties upon the second felony. So again, we need to focus on things that keep people out of the criminal legal system and not create new laws.” 

Bauman’s bill is getting national attention. The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that assists low-income people with bail and pretrial support, said in a statement that it opposes the bill because “it doubles-down on policies fueling mass incarceration, which will only harm the poorest and most vulnerable Kentuckians.” The bill includes several new regulations for bail organizations, including preventing charitable bail organizations from giving bail in amounts of more than $5,000. 

The Bail Project said the regulations “will only harm the most disadvantaged and already vulnerable Kentuckians in the state.” 

Cash bail creates a two-tiered system of justice that benefits the rich and disadvantages those without money, upending the fundamental principle in our justice system that everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” the nonprofit said. “It’s for these reasons that charitable bail organizations are so crucial — they even the playing field by restoring the presumption of innocence and ensuring that everyone gets their fair shake during trial. Kentuckians broadly agree that our criminal justice system is in need of reform — the Safer Kentucky Act will not achieve that.” 

When asked if he anticipates any challenges in passing the bill, Bauman said he welcomes them as the legislation moves forward and added he hopes they help “put forward the most effective policy for our state.”

“We do want it to be strong, we want to hold violent criminals accountable, and we want it to be very effective as well,” he said. “Everyone is welcomed with a seat at the table, so those conversations will continue.

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.