Sweeping GOP bill increasing criminal penalties, outlawing ‘street camping’ clears Kentucky House

Critics warn HB 5 would swell already bulging prison population, take us ‘back to 1955’

By: - January 25, 2024 6:40 pm

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, (center); Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, (left); and House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, presented House Bill 5 to the House Judiciary. Committee on Jan. 18. (LRC Public Information)

FRANKFORT — A sweeping anti-crime bill pushed by Louisville Republicans won approval Thursday in the Kentucky House after much debate and a few changes to the legislation. 

In a 74-22 vote, the House approved House Bill 5. The bill already had 50 Republican co-sponsors before the House voted on the measure. The only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill was Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty, of Martin. 

Some Republican House Judiciary committee members last week chose to not vote in favor of the bill or passed  on voting during a committee meeting. Ultimately, Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser supported the bill Thursday. Reps. Steven Doan and Savannah Maddox continued to vote against it. 

Dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act” by its sponsors, HB 5 seeks to strengthen penalties for crime in Kentucky. The legislation includes a three strikes provision for violent felonies; bans on  street camping near businesses, homes or other public spaces; restrictions on charitable bail organizations and establishes a felony carjacking statute. 

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jared Bauman, of Louisville, during the House debate reiterated much of what he has previously said about the legislation.

“As the first duty of any civilized society is to protect its honest citizens from those who prey on the innocent, House Bill 5 is ensuring that we have the strongest and most effective policy possible to support Kentucky families and our law enforcement,” Bauman said. “Across generations today, we are failing to provide the necessary foundation for Kentuckians to achieve prosperity.”

Critics of the bill, including charitable bail organizations and groups who aid people who are homeless, warn the bill “criminalizes poverty” and would increase incarceration in Kentucky. Kentucky has the world’s seventh-highest rate of incarceration, according to data analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2021. 

Bauman won approval for  a substantial floor amendment that includes an exemption to the street camping provision to allow sleeping in parked cars for up to 12 hours. The amendment also requires violent offenders to serve at least 85% of their prison sentence before becoming eligible for probation, parole or another form of early release. It clarifies that those charged with felony carjacking must be “without lawful authority or ownership.” 

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, said in a Thursday analysis that Bauman’s floor amendment “will cause even more harm and expense than the original version of the bill, while setting the state back on public safety goals.”

“Rather than improving public safety, HB 5 would grow poverty and hardship, further increase the risk of overdose deaths and massively swell spending on prisons and jails that could be better used for investments that actually work to prevent crime,” said Kaylee Raymer, policy Analyst for the center, in a statement. 

Supporters of the bill include the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police and some families of crime victims. Ryan Straw, vice president and governmental affairs chair of the police union, told the House Judiciary committee the bill is “vital to the health and welfare of our law enforcement officers and to the safety of the communities they serve.” 

Democrats, who hold a small minority of the House, led a few attempts to bring the bill off the floor or amend it. Rep. Sarah Stalker, of Louisville, made a motion to table the bill until an updated fiscal impact statement could be published, but the motion failed to gain enough support. 

Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, asks a question about House Bill 5 during a committee meeting. (LRC Public Information)

In a floor speech, Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, argued the bill “takes us back to 1955 when it was OK to hunt down people based on an accusation.” 

Herron said a section of the bill that shields business owners and employees who use a “reasonable amount of force” to protect themselves or detain someone they suspect of a crime, such as shoplifting, reminds her of the death of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman. 

“I believe that this provision opens up many Kentuckians to potential harm due to miscommunication,” Herron said, adding employees could also feel an extra burden to intervene. 

Republicans defended the legislation. Rep. Killian Timoney, of Nicholasville, said while the bill was not perfect, it “pushes us in the right direction.” 

“This bill is about empathy,” he said. The status quo, right now what we have, is not OK. There’s a moral imperative for us to help and reach out.” 

According to a fiscal impact statement from the Kentucky Department of Corrections released last week, HB 5 will produce “a significant increase in operational costs at the state level.” More dollars would need to be spent on adding staff and to imprison more inmates for longer sentences. However, Bauman said on the floor the fiscal impact statement needed correction and a new one was not available as of Thursday’s House vote. 

The original statement said impact at the state level would be more than $1 million. The corrections impact statement also warned of “significant” impact at the local level, as longer prison sentences could increase the length of stays in local jails and decrease prison bed space. 

“Changes to the definition of violent crimes will subject these offenders to longer sentences and lengthen the overall length of stay due to the removal of possible early release,” the statement said. 

What’s in the bill now? 

The bill has undergone several changes since Louisville Republicans announced the legislation last fall

Bauman’s floor amendment also further defined  how penalties for those who knowingly distribute fentanyl or a drug laced with fentanyl that results in the death of another person must work with protections for those acting in good faith under Kentucky’s Good Samaritan Law, which prevents people aiding someone who is experiencing an overdose from being charged for possession of a controlled substance. 

Opponents of the bill had previously raised concerns about swaying people from helping someone overdosing for fear of harsher criminal penalties.

More than two dozen floor amendments were filed on the bill ahead of Thursday — both by supporters and opponents. Some proposed amendments from Republicans Doan, Maddox and Rep. Felicia Rabournwere included in Bauman’s floor amendment. Rabourn also voted against the bill.  

Three floor amendments from Democrats failed in separate votes. Rep. Lindsey Burke, of Lexington, filed an amendment that would have removed parts of the bill about unlawful street camping. Rep. Rachel Roarx, of Louisville, had filed amendments to remove enhanced penalties for people convicted of three violent offenses and references to “criminal mischief,” or the destruction of property. 

Senate Republicans already have the bill on their radar. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, of Georgetown, told the Kentucky Lantern in December the bill was among the legislation he was interested in this session. Sen. John Schickel, of Union, recently said on X that he is supportive of Bauman’s bill. 

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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.