Opponents from across the political spectrum testify against sweeping crime bill Skip to content

Opponents from across the political spectrum testify against sweeping crime bill

Senate committee expected to vote Thursday on House Bill 5

Kentucky’s Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard a slew of testimony from across the political spectrum opposing an omnibus crime bill. 

Senate Judicial Committee Chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill) said that while House Bill 5 was up only for discussion Tuesday, he expects a committee vote on the legislation Thursday.

The bill currently has competing substitute versions in the committee — one from Westerfield and another from Sen. John Schickel (R-Union). The House sponsors of the bill expressed support for Schickel’s version. 

Advocates from both liberal and conservative think tanks spoke against the bill Tuesday, but several more had signed up. Because Rep. Jared Bauman, the bill’s primary sponsor, had to leave because of another obligation, Westerfield ended the meeting before everyone who had signed up got to speak.

The meeting lasted almost two hours. More discussion may be held ahead of the Thursday vote.

Pam Thomas, a senior fellow for the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the organization was concerned by the lack of information about the bill’s fiscal impacts on the state. The center’s analysis found that House Bill 5 would cost more than $1 billion over the next decade because of an increase in incarceration expenses. 

“This is a system that cannot handle the influx of new people if House Bill 5 passes,” Thomas said. 

Sarah Durand, the vice president for government affairs of center-right group KY FREE, said the Legislative Research Commission should conduct an in-depth fiscal analysis of the bill before the General Assembly passes it. Ten days are left in the 60-day legislative session.

“There are too many provisions of House Bill 5 to cover,” she said. “Please know that many will significantly increase the burden borne by taxpayers to support the state’s corrections system.”

Joey Comley, the Kentucky director of conservative group Right on Crime, said the legislation is not based on any research in Kentucky. Additionally, he argued that while the bill has tough consequences for crimes, “consequences alone will not solve Kentucky’s criminal problems.” 

“I would submit that any comprehensive criminal justice overhaul like House Bill 5 requires Kentucky data coupled with multidisciplinary deliberation and the exercise of this General Assembly’s resolute discernment.” 

Among the several questions raised by lawmakers during the meeting, Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, pressed Bauman and his co-sponsors about the data behind the bill. A recent Kentucky Public Media story found that Bauman’s source list appeared to be copied and pasted from a 2023 paper arguing for solutions to crime in Atlanta.

“Well, I’ll ask a very direct question,” Neal said to the sponsors. “I said you have data that you base this upon, and will you provide it before — sufficient time — before we take action on this Thursday?”

Republican House Whip Jason Nemes, of Middletown, responded that the data also includes “conversations with a lot of experts, a lot of circuit judges, a lot of commonwealth’s attorneys.”

Bauman said he would share the names with Neal.

The committee substitutes

The bulk of the meeting focused on differences between the committee substitute versions of the bill from Westerfield and Schickel. The committee did not adopt either yet.

However, after the meeting, Westerfield said on X, formerly Twitter, that he appreciated Bauman for taking questions on the bill but he was “deeply disappointed that the support doesn’t appear to be there for my proposed sub.” Westerfield asked Schickel to include some of his requests in his version of the bill. 

Bauman asked the committee to support Shickel’s version at the beginning of the committee. Later, Westerfield noted at the end of the bill sponsors’ presentation that their prepared PowerPoint slides only referenced Schickel’s substitute. 

Westerfield, a former prosecutor, publicly shared a draft of a committee substitute version he worked on ahead of the meeting. Most of his changes would lean to more restorative justice approaches. He said online that his version “doesn’t make half the changes I’d like to make, but it does improve” the bill. 

His version would create a “Recidivism Reduction Task Force,” which would be made up of governor appointees, a district judge appointed by the Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice, and more members representing education, law enforcement, community-based organizations ,and communities affected by crime or people with personal experience in the criminal justice system.

Westerfield’s version also calls for those found violating the bill’s ban on street camping be referred to mental health or homelessness assistance resources. Another change would be that the family of a homicide victim could request firearms used in the homicide be destroyed, rather than be destroyed after auction. 

Schickel, a retired law enforcement officer, said the “meat and potatoes” of his version are the ban on street camping, the three felony strikes rule for repeat offenders, and fleeing and evading police. 

“Without our police being respected, they cannot police our communities.”

Some advocates expressed a preference for Westerfield’s version. Phillip Lawson, the legislative agent for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the committee that Westerfield’s substitute “contains significant and material changes that address our concerns,” especially for Kentucky’s violent offender statute. 

Lyndon Pryor, president of the Louisville Urban League, told the Kentucky Lantern ahead of the meeting that Westerfield’s changes do “improve the bill,” but the best outcome would be to shelve the bill entirely. The legislation does not have solutions to improve the challenges it is supposed to overcome, he said. 

“Even with the changes, it’s not necessarily going to be anything that we can get behind, but I can acknowledge that the changes, at least that I’ve seen, do seem to at least make the original bill less harsh in a few ways,” Pryor said. 

The House gave its approval to the bill in a vote of 74-22 in January. It has yet to receive a reading in the Senate.

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Written by McKenna Horsley. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.



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Kentucky Lantern

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.

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