GOP bill stiffening criminal penalties, targeting homeless campers clears House committee

Crime victim families say bill is necessary. Critics warn it will punish poverty and leave crime’s root causes untouched.

By: - January 18, 2024 9:37 pm

VOCAL-KY representatives Shameka Parrish-Wright, left, and Stephanie Johnson speak against House Bill 5. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers moved a Republican anti-crime bill out of committee Thursday afternoon after hearing more than two hours of testimony, including support from crime victims and warnings from opponents that the measure “criminalizes poverty” and will drive up Kentucky’s already high rate of incarceration.

The committee adopted a substitute version of House Bill 5 that was not available online Thursday evening, but has since been published. Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, the bill’s primary sponsor, said changes made in the substitute version include removing sections related to changes in the parole board, removing language that would affect federal funding for housing initiatives and giving schools more flexibility in reporting to law enforcement.

A priority for Republicans and dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act,” the measure includes a three strikes law for violent felonies; provisions against street camping near businesses, homes or other public spaces; and a felony carjacking statute. A goal of the bill’s sponsors is to strengthen penalties for criminal acts. 

From left, Rep. John Hodgson, Rep. Jared Bauman and House Majority Whip Jason Nemes presented House Bill 5 to the House Judiciary. Committee. (LRC Public Information)

The House Judiciary committee approved the bill 13-5. Republican Reps. Savannah Maddox, of Dry Ridge, and Steven Doan, of Erlanger, joined Democrats in voting no. Doan said he needed to see further changes to the bill before he could support it. Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser, R-Taylor Mill, passed on voting because she too wanted changes.

“With this bill, House Bill 5, we are reasserting some basic and simple truths,” said Bauman. “And that is that criminals, not society, are accountable for their actions. And society has the right to protect itself from the criminal element. And so, that criminal element has become an all too normal part of our world today.” 

A photo of Scott County Deputy Caleb Conley is shown during a House Judiciary Committee meeting. His widow, Rachel Conley, recounted the day her husband died in May 2023 after he was shot during a traffic stop. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Bauman and other Louisville Republicans backing the bill brought family members of deceased crime victims to testify before the committee. Rachel Conley, the widow of Scott County Sheriff Deputy Caleb Conley, recounted the day her husband died in May 2023 after he was shot during a traffic stop. Authorities have said the man accused was connected to other crimes. 

“My story is just one of many. There are far too many stories that are just like mine,” Rachel told the committee. “Our first responders are not just a badge. They are human beings with family and friends who love them. Many of them have spouses and children that worry about them making it home after each shift. I tell my story because I hope it has an impact on your decision.”

The Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police had previously expressed support for the bill. Ryan Straw, vice president and governmental affairs chair of the police union, told the committee the bill is “vital to the health and welfare of our law enforcement officers and to the safety of the communities they serve.” 

Ahead of Thursday’s committee meeting, critics of the bill had already been vocal in their opposition, arguing that it would increase incarcerations instead of addressing issues that increase crime. Several speakers renewed that call during Thursday’s meeting. 

Seats saved for presenters ahead of a House Judiciary committee meeting. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

VOCAL-KY Director Shameka Parrish-Wright said lawmakers should focus on legislation for “real actions that help improve conditions” for those in poverty across the state. Parrish-Wright is also a member of the Louisville Metro Council. VOCAL-KY is a community organizing group that aims to build power among low-income people. 

“The fact is Kentucky is poor,” she said. “And Kentucky is criminalizing poverty and we will not get better that way.”

Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, told the committee he agrees with the sponsors’ goal — “a safe, healthy, vibrant and prosperous commonwealth” — he just disagrees with how they are going about it. He noted Kentucky’s high incarceration rate and added that “means if locking people up made us safe, we’re one of the safest places on the planet.” 

Kentucky has the world’s seventh-highest rate of incarceration, according to data analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2021. Kentucky incarcerates 930 people per 100,000 population, higher than the rate in the United Sates as a whole of 664 incarcerated per 100,000 people. The study includes state and federal prisons and local jails. 

“But yet, here we sit with a bill entitled ‘The Safer Kentucky Act,’” Njuguna said, “looking to lock up more people for longer with little to no support for provisions — maybe one or two — that uplift and empower people, like funding for affordable housing, substance use treatment, mental health, victim services.”

Ten GOP members of the committee are co-sponsors of the bill, which has more than 50 Republicans as co-sponsors. 

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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.

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