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Ky. bill would limit when groups can bail people out of jail

Charitable organizations would only be allowed to bail people out of jail for certain charges, under a new proposal advancing in the Kentucky legislature. 

House Bill 313 was filed back in January, and initially sought to totally ban charitable bail organizations, which gained prominence during racial justice protests in 2020. The proposal has been amended to allow the organizations to function in Kentucky, but banned them from posting bonds greater than $5,000, and in cases involving domestic violence or involuntary substance abuse treatment.

The bill received renewed interest from lawmakers last week after a charitable bail organization posted a $100,000 bondfor a man accused of shooting at Louisville mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg.

Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, a Republican, introduced the new version of the bill on Wednesday, saying charitable bail groups should still be allowed to function in Kentucky with limitations. The new version of the bill wasn’t publicly available as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Nemes said he drafted the proposed restrictions after speaking with circuit court judges. 

“The people of Kentucky, in our constitution, require a bail to be set and when there is bail to be set we cannot allow an entity to make a mockery of it,” Nemes said. 

For years, lawmakers have debated the merits of the bail system, which allows people who have been accused of crimes to post bond to avoid staying in jail ahead of their trial. A separate bill advancing in the legislature would limit the amount of time that people who have been accused of crimes can spend in jail.

Nearby states are having similar discussions. A similar bill in Indiana would require charitable bail groups to have government certification and limit them to bailing out no more than two people every six months.

Charitable Bail

Charitable bail organizations help people who can’t afford to post bonds limit the amount of time they spend behind bars and combat racial and economic disparities. 

These groups played a major role in helping demonstrators arrested during protests for racial justice in 2020. 

The Louisville Bail Project is one of at least two such organizations operating in Louisville. During a legislative hearing on Wednesday, the organization’s manager Carrie Cole said the group is part of a national nonprofit that seeks to end cash bail and has provided free bail assistance to nearly 4,000 Kentuckians. More than 90% of their clients have returned for their court dates.

“We are opposed to House Bill 313 because it would limit the number of poor Kentuckians charitable bail organizations can serve by restricting the amount of bail to $5,000 or less,” Cole said. “Meanwhile wealthy people charged with more serious offenses and high bail amounts will be able to buy their freedom. This does not protect public safety.”

But opponents at the hearing accused the Louisville Bail Project of helping to release repeat offenders, including those accused of violent crimes. Marcie Troutt, a Louisville resident whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver last year, said the Louisville Bail Project helped to bail out the driver.

“The reason that my daughter is not here is at the hands of the Louisville Bail Project and its supporters. The reason that my husband will not have his daughter to walk down the aisle is at the hands of the Louisville Bail Projects and its supporters,” Troutt said.

Quintez Brown

Police say Quintez Brown, a local writer and activist, tried to shoot Greenberg at his campaign office in Louisville on Feb. 14. No one was injured in the shooting, though Greenberg’s clothing was grazed by a bullet, according to police.

Brown is currently out of jail on bond and under home incarceration. A grand jury is expected to review the felony charges against Brown next month. Chanelle Helm testified on behalf of the Louisville Community Bail Fund, the organization that posted Brown’s bond. 

“The conditions for his bail were set by a judge,” she said. “If there is an issue with bail then you take it up with a judge.”

Helm said one reason the organization chose to post bond for Brown was because six people have died in custody of Louisville Metro Corrections since late November. 

Committee Reaction

During the meeting, several lawmakers said they believe Kentucky’s cash bail system is broken. Democratic Rep. Pamela Stevenson of Louisville said it’s a failure of the system.

“It’s broke, it’s broke, but making it work on the backs of poor people doesn’t work. Let’s fix the system,” Stevenson said. 

Nemes said he recognized House Bill 313 would not fix the larger institutional problems in the state’s prisons and jails. He said he’s working on different legislation to reform the system, though it would require a constitutional amendment.

“If we’re going to have cash bail, and I don't necessarily like that, but that’s the law by our constitution,” he said. “If a judge set $100,000 dollars for a man who tries to assassinate someone, that’s not appropriate for an entity to come in and bail them out. It’s also, in my view, not appropriate for a rich man to bail himself out.” 

The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-2 vote with five lawmakers choosing to pass. It now moves to the House floor for a vote.  

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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