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The Safer Kentucky Act source list is ‘cut and paste’ from a Georgia policy paper

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
LRC Public Information
Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

A Kentucky Public Radio analysis found many of the sources provided in support of the so-called Safer Kentucky Act have little to do with the bill itself. Now, KPR has obtained a source list for a 2023 paper that appears to use the same citations.

In a tense committee hearing Tuesday, lawmakers argued over the provisions of the tough on crime legislation known as the Safer Kentucky Act. One point of contention was whether the bill had the research backing it up.

Sen. Minority Leader Gerald Neal, a long-time Louisville Democrat, asked if the bill was data-driven. He pushed the sponsors to provide their research.

“What is it based upon? I've done a little reading and people have approached me, and there's a big question as to whether or not this is data driven, which I think would be very important,” Neal said.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Louisville Republican Rep. Jared Bauman said some of his evidence comes from research, and much of it comes from anecdotes.

“When it comes to data, we have some research that we've looked at. And we also have data points from people that are on the ground that are in the system,” Bauman said, pointing to testimony from the Fraternal Order of Police president.

The research behind HB 5 has been drawn into question by a Kentucky Public Radio analysis, which found that a source list Bauman provided in late January included a number of sources that had nothing to do with the bill and at least a couple researchers who said their research actively advocates for different policy solutions.

Kentucky Public Radio then obtained documents that show the source list Republican lawmakers are using to support the Safer Kentucky Act appears to come from a 2023 paper created by the Georgia Center for Opportunity to suggest crime solutions for Atlanta, not Kentucky.

The first page of the source list from the 2023 Georgia Center for Opportunity paper.
The first page of the source list from the 2023 Georgia Center for Opportunity paper.

House Bill 5 passed the state House, and is now winding its way through the Senate, where it is scheduled for a Thursday vote following the Tuesday discussion.

Conservative criminal justice reformer Joey Comley said he discovered the paper used the exact same citations and formatting while researching to speak on the bill ahead of a Tuesday committee hearing.

The first page of source list for the Safer Kentucky Act.

“It's dawning on me, I've recently read something that had the same source list,” Comley said. “So then I looked and on my desk, I've got that printed off. And it's clearly a cut and paste.”

Bauman did not respond to a list of detailed questions, including whether he relied on any other research in crafting his legislation.

In February, Bauman said the source list he cited as evidence “provides a detailed and thorough background and it gave us further opportunity to look at crime and its impact through multiple lenses.”

Tuesday’s hearing

The main conversation of Tuesday’s hearing was in picking apart the two potential committee substitutes for the bill — one provided by the committee chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Fruit Hill and the other by Sen. John Schickel, a former police officer and jailer from Union.

Bauman and his co-sponsors said they supported Schickel’s version over Westerfield’s. Schickel maintained the provisions of previous versions of the tough on crime legislation, which would enhance penalties for more than two dozen crimes. It would outlaw street camping, and add unlawful camping to the state’s stand your ground laws. It would charge people who use drugs for knowingly giving someone fentanyl. It would add new restrictions on charitable bail funds and expand the definition of violent crimes to include attempted offenses.

A KyCIR investigation found the bill could lead to more incarceration, pushing already overcrowded Kentucky jails to the brink. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy also found the bill would “easily cost more than $1 billion over the next decade.”

Some elements of the bill share striking similarities to model legislation created by the right-leaning think tank the Cicero Institute, primarily a ban on “unlawful camping” which some activists say would further criminalize homelessness.

Westerfield’s version narrowed many of the provisions to focus on explicitly violent crimes and lessened penalties on some non-violent offenses, like proposed increased penalties for parents who do not attend their children’s court hearings. It would also create an Anti-Recidivism Task Force to continue exploring solutions in the state. But the core of many penalty increases would remain the same.

Westerfield hammered the bill’s sponsors with questions and asked them why they didn’t support his version of the legislation.

“I don't question your intent on any of this,” Westerfield said. “I don't fault you for trying to bring something forward. But three-fourths of the bill casts a net that's three times wider than it needs to be.”

While the sponsors occasionally supported the bill as is, they often said they would have to ask “stakeholders” opinions before committing to any changes in their own legislation. The stakeholders the sponsors said they would need to consult appear to be similar groups as those from which they gathered anecdotal evidence for the bill, like the Fraternal Order of Police.

“This is starting to feel like a deposition. I'm cool with that,” said Rep. Jason Nemes from Middletown, a lead co-sponsor on the bill. “But I will say that, as we sit here, and we've said before, I'm gonna say it again, we have to get with the stakeholders that are experts, and then we can get back to you.”

Westerfield publicly released a copy of his proposed committee substitute Monday, and the bill’s sponsors appeared unaware of many of its changes.

Bauman’s ‘research’ came from Georgia policy paper

Democrats who are against the bill say the use of the entire source list with no attribution amounts to plagiarism, and have questioned whether the sponsors truly engaged in independent research.

The author of the Georgia report is Josh Crawford, the former executive director of the Pegasus Institute, a millennial-run conservative think tank in Louisville that now appears to be defunct; its IRS non-profit status has lapsed and its domain name no longer works. Crawford told KPR he did not share his report with Bauman nor was he involved in the bill’s drafting.

Crawford now serves as the criminal policy director for the Georgia Center for Opportunity. Although the center identifies as nonpartisan, it is a member of the State Policy Network, which connects state-level conservative and libertarian think tanks across the country.

Crawford said he didn’t particularly mind that the bill’s sponsors used his source list.

“I don't have a strong feeling about that one way or the other,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s report advocates for a lot of other things — like more re-entry services and cognitive-behavioral therapy for people while still in prison.

It also recommends addressing urban blight, street lighting and vacant properties as a crime deterrent, none of which are addressed in the bill. Yet, Bauman’s list still includes the multitude of sources that show these measures can be effective in reducing crime, all without having to put more people in jail for longer.

Crawford said he believes at least a few of the measures in HB5 are backed up by his research, like the provision that creates a three strikes law for violent felony offenders and another that allows required participation in a violence prevention program as a condition of parole. Crawford appeared at the Tuesday hearing in favor of those specific provisions, but said that he cannot speak for the entire bill.

“House Bill 5 is an exhaustive piece of legislation,” Crawford said. “I would argue that the provisions that I am speaking to do fit in sort of the approach that that we recommend, yes, but I cannot speak with any level of expertise to the provisions about homelessness or anything like that.”

Comley, the Kentucky director for Right on Crime, said he takes issue with a number of elements in the bill and was skeptical it was truly driven by data. He doesn’t believe prevailing criminal justice data supports policy that almost entirely focuses on increasing incarceration, he said, and questioned whether Kentucky is in the midst of a crime wave at all.

“You're looking at youth offenders, all the way up through adult offenders, repeat offenders — and you got it all packed into one bill. So you would think, wow, they really must have done some comprehensive study to arrive at a far reaching solution like House Bill 5,” Comley said. “But that's clearly not the case at all.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond asked for Bauman to read his list of sources on the House floor in late January.

She wanted to make sure that information became public and was skeptical of it from the start, she said.

“When we learned that the source list was plagiarized, it just made me think I'm serving in the Kentucky General Assembly, not on the Atlanta City Council,” Raymond said. “Kentucky has unique challenges. Atlanta has unique challenges. I want a policy crafted for our people and our communities that is responsive to our needs.”

Raymond said she believes the bill is not driven by data, but rather by fear, and suspects the sponsors tried to find data to fit the bill rather than crafting a bill to fit the data.

Another Louisville Democrat, Rep. Pam Stevenson, said she hopes to see the bill change as it works its way through the Senate.

“It is really going to depend on what's happening to the bill on the Senate side,” Stevenson said. “We would hope that they would second guess themselves and go back and relook at it.”

This story has been updated.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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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