Sweeping GOP crime bill clears Kentucky Senate despite judiciary chairman’s opposition Skip to content

Sweeping GOP crime bill clears Kentucky Senate despite judiciary chairman’s opposition

Tired of ‘mollycoddling’ criminals, says Republican Floor Leader Thayer

3 min read
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary who voted against the GOP bill (photo by LRC Public Information)

A GOP-backed omnibus crime bill won state Senate approval Friday over the objections of the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Long after I’m gone, we are going to be paying for it — figuratively and literally,” warned Sen. Whitney Westerfield in an impassioned speech that did not dissuade his colleagues from backing House Bill 5

The Senate vote was 27-9. Republicans Westerfield and Adrienne Southworth joined the seven Senate Democrats in voting against the measure. 

The sweeping bill includes several new or increased penalties for crimes in Kentucky, such as bans on street camping and a three strikes rule for violent offenders. It requires prisoners convicted of violent offenses to serve 85% of their sentences and expands the definition of violent offense.

Jefferson County House Republicans backing the bill have framed it as necessary to curb crime across the state.

Westerfield, of Fruit Hill, attempted to soften the bill while it was in the Judiciary Committee that he chairs, but he didn’t get support from members. After opposing the bill in committee Thursday, the senator said he would “explain my vote when the bill hits the floor.” 

Ultimately, the committee adopted a version of the bill that included changes from Westerfield and Sen. John Schickel (R-Union). 

In the Senate Friday, Westerfield withdrew five floor amendments because he didn’t have enough votes. His amendments included small steps like requiring police officers to refer unhoused persons to housing and mental health resources before citing them for illegal street camping and giving officers the option of transporting an unhoused person to a shelter.

Westerfield, a former prosecutor, isn’t seeking reelection to the Senate. At the beginning of Friday’s session, his colleagues approved a resolution honoring his time in the Senate that included references to legislation he carried to “strengthen the criminal justice system for both offenders and victims.” Senators of both parties rose to heap praise on Westerfield, saying, among other accolades, that his knowledge and leadership on criminal justice issues have earned Kentucky national respect.

However, Republicans’ embrace of HB 5 represents a turning away from efforts in recent years to reduce Kentucky’s high rates of incarceration.

Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, of Georgetown, said he cast his vote in favor of HB 5 to make up for the “bad votes” he’s previously cast on Right on Crime and Smart on Crime measures. He said they seek to “mollycoddle these criminals.”

“It’s time we rolled back those bad bills and today’s a good start,” Thayer said. 

Schickel, who carried the bill in the Senate, said the bill addresses violent crime in Kentucky while creating new provisions, such as a shopkeeper’s privilege. That allows business owners and employees the ability to use a “reasonable amount of force” to detain someone suspected of shoplifting. Keeping people safe is “one of the most basic responsibilities of government,” he said.

“When crime is being committed and no one is being held accountable, where is the justice in our community?” Schickel asked. 

House Bill 5’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jared Bauman (R-Louisville) has said the bill is a response to Kentucky “failing to provide the necessary foundation for Kentuckians to achieve prosperity.” 

A few Democrats voiced opposition to the bill while several Republicans spoke in support of the bill. Senate Minority Leader Gerald Neal, of Louisville, said the bill is a “serious mistake.” 

“We’re talking about changing our criminal code and various other aspects of our laws to do something that really is going to take deeper research and engagement in order to address,” Neal said. “There’s going to have to be long term solutions.” 

The bill has had opposition from advocates across the political spectrum, but has gained support from groups such as the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police and the Kentucky Commonwealth Attorneys Association. 

Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, found in an analysis of the bill before its most recent changes that it would cost more than $1 billion over the next decade because of an increase in incarceration expenses.

The bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk. He can sign or veto it.


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.