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Democrats lament GOP anti-crime bill as the ‘suffer Ky. act’ as it passes state House

Republican Rep. Jared Bauman of Louisville takes a question from Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham of Frankfort during the House floor debate on House Bill 5 on Jan. 25, 2024.
Ryan Van Velzer
Republican Rep. Jared Bauman of Louisville (right) takes a question from Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham of Frankfort (left) during the House floor debate on House Bill 5 on Jan. 25, 2024.

After several hours of debate, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed House Bill 5 Thursday. The sweeping measure vastly increases criminal penalties, expands civil and criminal immunity for shopkeepers and creates a three strikes law for violent felony offenders.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Kentucky lawmakers filed more than two dozen floor amendments in nearly equal numbers from Republicans and Democrats.

But only one amendment, filed by the bill’s lead sponsor Republican Rep. Jared Bauman from Louisville, was adopted before the chamber voted 74-22 in favor of the omnibus HB 5. It largely incorporated changes proposed by other Republicans in floor amendments. The bill now moves to the state Senate for consideration.

Bauman’s proposal, which he calls the "Safer Kentucky Act," creates and enhances a variety of penalties across the criminal justice system. It would create a new felony for carjacking and increase the penalties for evading police and smuggling contraband inside a jail or prison. Damaging a rental property in excess of $500 would become a felony under the measure.

The bill would outlaw sleeping in a tent on public property while adding unlawful camping to the state’s Stand Your Ground law — in practice allowing a property owner to use deadly force to remove a person from their property.

On the House floor, Bauman argued that increasing prison sentences would deter crime and keep those who break the law out of the community.

“Across generations today we are failing to provide the necessary foundation for Kentuckians to achieve prosperity,” Bauman said. “For our youngest generation, they’re growing up in a world today in an environment that normalizes crime and criminal behavior as just a regular part of our daily lives.”

The HB vote totals by lawmaker

Democrats argued fervently against the bill. Many said it would exacerbate crime, put an unreasonable burden on an already overburdened prison system and would not lead to a safer Kentucky.

“All I see here in the suffer Kentucky act… is more problems,” Louisville Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond said.

Raymond pointed to the financial impact statement for the original bill that did not include a specific dollar figure for the bill, but estimated it would cost at least $1 million to the state — and likely significantly more given it costs nearly $25,000 per year to house a person in a Kentucky prison in 2021.

“This bill, rather than acknowledge the difficult work required to actually make Kentuckians safer, has one solution to a host of different problems: increased penalties. Lock them up!” Raymond said. “This bill will have an enormous negative economic impact on our communities. Not to mention … in a state where already one in ten of our kids has an incarcerated parent.”

Bauman said that Kentuckians do not support a “soft-on-crime approach” and many live “in fear and terror on our streets.”

“Whether our family and loved ones return home to us each day shouldn't depend on the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bauman said. “It should depend upon a strong societal foundation for public safety, security and protection.”

Questions over data

Democrats argued against the law, asserting Republicans’ approach mirrored unsuccessful attempts at limiting crime reminiscent of the 1990s.

Bauman and his co-sponsors have frequently claimed they have extensive data to support their approach to crime fighting, especially the significant increases in penalties on numerous crimes. They have also frequently cited high crime and a pervasive “criminal element” as impetus to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system.

Bauman has been asked for a list of his data at two public hearings and at least one press conference.

In response to a question from Raymond, Bauman spent several minutes listing his evidence out loud by title and author. Louisville Public Media requested a copy of the list more than a week ago, but received no response. Bauman did not finish reciting his list, and a copy still has yet to be provided to reporters.

Bauman also said Kentucky continues to see "record rates of homicides in urban and rural areas across the state." Federal Bureau of Investigations crime data shows a significant increase in homicides between 2020 and 2021 before showing a steep decline in 2022.

In the first years of the pandemic, violent crime spiked in Kentucky and across the country. Federal Bureau of Investigations crime data shows a significant drop in violent crime in 2022. Rates of property crimes have not increased in Kentucky for at least a decade, according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, a 2015 study from the Prison Policy Institute found Kentucky would have the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the world if each U.S. state were counted as its own country.

“I think it's important for us to understand what we are talking about in terms of the status quo and the legacy before we start implementing these broad sweeping changes to our federal justice system,” said Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Louisville. “I want Kentuckians to understand not only the impact on the communities that this bill will have, but the cost that they are being asked to bear for no actual reduction in crime rate to show in return.”

What the amendment changed

Most notably, the amendment added several new crimes to the violent crime statute including several attempted violent crimes, burglary in the first degree (with no requirement the person be harmed), and first-degree arson.

The amendment also sought to correct concerns over the portion that would charge a person with murder if they “knowingly” sell fentanyl to another person and cause them to fatally overdose. The amendment adds an exception for those who call help for someone experiencing an overdose, freeing the caller from fear of prosecution.

The adopted amendment also swapped out an entire section of the bill addressing gun violence. The version the House passed would prevent a person from being eligible for parole or early release under certain circumstances if that person committed the crime while in possession of a firearm.

The amendments courted votes from northern Kentucky Republicans Reps. Savannah Maddox, Steven Doan, and Felicia Rabourn, who each filed several amendments similar to the ones Bauman incorporated. But when it came time to vote, all three voted “no” on the measure. They were the only Republicans to vote against the bill and were joined by all but one Democrat.

Democrats requested votes on several floor amendments, attempting to remove various sections of the bill including the element that would ban street camping and add it to the Stand Your Ground law. That attempt failed on party lines.

Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, a Democrat from Lexington, said she would have considered voting "yes" on various elements of the bill. But the fact that so many varied topics were thrown into one made distinguishing impossible and forced her to vote against some provisions she might otherwise have supported.

“If this bill had been 10 different bills, I would’ve voted for a lot of them,” Stevenson said. “The fact that we did not pull out the homeless [street camping ban], I just could not vote yes. The Jesus in my heart would not criminalize homelessness, and we shouldn’t either.”

Democrats also attempted to remove the portion that lowers the threshold for what makes damage to rental property a felony conviction and the piece that creates a three strikes law for violent felony offenders.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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