Regressive, ‘lock them up’ House Bill 5 would be a costly mistake for Kentucky Skip to content

Regressive, ‘lock them up’ House Bill 5 would be a costly mistake for Kentucky

Our state needs substantial criminal justice reform, not more regressive policies. Kentucky cannot afford this costly mistake.

As a public defender for 37 years and as a person who has requested common sense, evidenced-based reforms of our criminal legal system, I know House Bill 5 is the wrong direction.

HB 5 is an imprudent policy with an irresponsible expenditure of funds. Lock them up and throw away the key may make people feel good, but it is not smart, effective policy.

House Bill 5 is a massive bill that will unnecessarily imprison more longer at great and unnecessary expense. It needlessly takes discretion from judges, prosecutors and the parole board. It significantly expands the offenses subject to the 85% parole eligibility provision. There are better, evidence-based policies and use of funds to mitigate criminal behavior in a sustainable way.

Taxpayers across the commonwealth will have to get their wallets out. The HB 5 fiscal impact statement concludes, “indeterminable but likely a significant increase in expenditures primarily due to increased incarceration costs for the Department of Corrections” without detailingthe extreme expense that will result. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates that the actual costs will be “extraordinarily expensive to state and local governments,” over $1 billion over the next decade due to many more persons serving much longer sentences. 

The accurate context is important to understand. The facts are that Kentucky’s crime rate and its violent crime rate are below the national average and declining. Yet Kentucky has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the nation. While some cities have spikes of certain crimes, the crime rate is decreasing. It may seem otherwise but that is because what leads during the 11 o’clock news has bestowed on us a Ph.D. in media criminology. Sound policy is made on facts and reason, not myths and emotions. 

Increasing violent offenses is not needed. Kentucky already has a persistent felony statute that is the broadest in the country. University of Kentucky Law Professor Robert Lawson termed Kentucky’s current PFO law one of the “most far–reaching repeat offender laws ever enacted.” Our  PFO law results in the frequent and lengthy incarceration of persons who are not incorrigible.

Homelessness is not a crime. The bill criminalizes homelessness. Criminalizing social problems is not a smart approach. Living on the street because you do not have a home is not criminal conduct. Jails and the judicial system are not designed to address social problems. Living, sleeping, camping on the street bothers many people but that activity is not criminal. Arresting a person who lives on the street and incarcerating that person is not compassionate.

Creating a new capital offense is unwise. HB 5 expands the death penalty to a new offense. This extension is at a time when the state has yet to implement the set of recommendations of a 2011 comprehensive statewide audit of the administration of the death penalty that found its administration in Kentucky is  riddled with 90-plus major deficiencies. The study committee had two former Kentucky Supreme Court justices — James Keller and Martin Johnstone —  as members. We need reform or elimination of the penalty of death, not expansion of it.

A comprehensive analysis of the deleterious aspects of HB 5 is found at: House Bill 5 Arrives in Senate With Changes That Make It Even More Harmful – Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (

Kentucky needs substantial criminal justice reform, not more regressive policies.

Kentucky cannot afford this costly mistake.


Written by Ed Monahan. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear House Bill 5 at a special meeting Tuesday after the Senate adjourns. The agenda says the bill will be up for discussion only.
Judiciary chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield on Monday posted a proposed Senate substitute for the measure. “It doesn’t make half the changes I’d like to make, but it does improve HB 5 in material ways,” Westerfield said on X, formerly Twitter. Westerfield said he anticipates a vote on the bill Thursday during the committee’s regular meeting.

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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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