FRANKFORT, Ky. (Jan. 18, 2024) — Harsher penalties for repeat violent felony offenders and individuals guilty of carjacking or harming a first responder are among the many proposed updates to criminal law in Kentucky.
House Bill 5, also known as the Safer Kentucky Act, advanced from the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, is the primary sponsor. He said the bill focuses on holding criminals accountable for their actions.
“With this bill, House Bill 5, we are reasserting some basic and simple truths,” Bauman said. “And that is criminals, not society, are accountable for their actions. And society has the right to protect itself from the criminal element. That criminal element an all too normal part of our world today.”
Bauman testified on HB 5 alongside cosponsors House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, and Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville. A few Kentucky families of crime victims and other stakeholders also testified in favor of the legislation.
The families were there to advocate for provisions of the bill that would regulate charitable bail organizations and create harsher penalties for fleeing and eluding arrest and for killing a first responder. Under HB 5, murder of a first responder would be considered a capital offense. Guilty individuals would face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The 72-page, comprehensive legislation would also create harsher penalties and felony charges for a variety of offenses, including carjacking. Individuals who sell fentanyl and cause a fatal overdose would be charged with capital murder under HB 5.
Misdemeanor penalties for unlawful camping would also be established in the bill.
Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, said he supports HB 5, even though he thinks some of the drug-related death penalties should be harsher.
“We, as a government, have a responsibility to protect the citizens of this commonwealth, and that’s what we’ve done with House Bill 5,” Blanton said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think you go far enough. I think that if someone traffics drugs of any sort and someone overdoses and dies, they ought to be charged with murder.”
Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, said he has several concerns about the legislation, including the provisions on unlawful camping.
“If we’re going to criminalize on-street camping, if we’re going to put these people in jail, let’s at least make sure that the government is providing a place for people to go,” Doan said. “We do it for animals, let’s do it for humans too.”
Doan also said he has a concern about text messages in relation to violations of orders of protection. Bauman said he would commit to addressing his concerns.
The House Judiciary Committee approved HB 5 by a 13-5 vote with one pass vote.
In explaining her “no” vote, Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, said HB 5 does not address the root causes of crime in Kentucky, and the bill would make the issue worse.
“There is a mountain of evidence over the decades that has been spoken to and testified to here today that greater incarceration, increased penalties do not result in a deterrence of actual crime,” she said. “It does not actually result in safer communities. I am hopeful that maybe we can agree on some legislation in the future that would result in safer communities.”
In explaining his “yes” vote, Rep. Nick Wilson, R-Williamsburg, said he thinks the bill does a “great job” of addressing the problems discussed during the meeting. Wilson specifically mentioned a newer version of the bill that makes a distinction in the fleeing and eluding arrest provision.
“I think it shows the thoughtfulness in the bill, the hard work you’ve put in, and that you’re not just looking to throw the book at everyone,” he said.
HB 5 will now go before the full House for consideration.