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Chorus of concerns raised in hearing about crime bill’s cost, consequences

Following Tuesday’s floor session of the state Senate, that body’s judiciary committee met in a special-called meeting to hear discussion on House Bill 5, a large crime bill called the “Safer Kentucky Act.” (Watch the entire hearing here.)

No vote was taken (that’s scheduled for Thursday), but there were a chorus of concerns raised about cost and consequences. The more this bill gets examined and debated, the more the following becomes apparent:

· Parts of this bill are well-founded, including movement toward Truth in Sentencing, punishing violent offenders and those with violent intentions, punishing those who victimize first responders and children and increasing protections of the victims of domestic violence.

Broken out into separate bills, several portions of HB 5 would enjoy substantial – even bipartisan – support. Taking that approach would be the equivalent of using a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, which HB 5 does in some places by incorporating many different comprehensive parts into one large bill.

· Our recent policy brief summarizing and analyzing HB 5 conclude the legislation expands the reach of the Kentucky criminal code in a variety of ways. It creates new offenses, broadens elements, raises offense levels, increases sentences, reduces sentencing discretion and restricts opportunities for early release.

That growing chorus of concerns focused in Tuesday’s hearing on the apparent lack of empirical evidence offered regarding these long-term and costly changes this bill makes to Kentucky’s criminal justice policy, and whether its approach toward toughening sentences and putting new crimes on the book will effectively result in reducing criminal activity across the commonwealth. Some of HB 5’s proposals will, no doubt, do just that, but the evidence is circumstantial, at best.

In his testimony to the committee on Tuesday, Joey Comley, Kentucky Director of Right on Crime, told legislators: “Consequences alone will not solve Kentucky’s crime problem.” (See my recent Kentucky’s Voice interview with Comley here, which includes a discussion of the crime bill.)

· Some legislators who seem to prefer the sledgehammer approach toward creating criminal-justice policies become defensive when issues of cost are raised. But the fiscal data provided by the Legislative Research Commission for HB 5 is, at best, incomplete and inadequate in determining this bill’s price tag, including the additional cost of locking offenders up for longer periods of time, or the impact of its mandates on local governments.

The naïve among us believe any legislation claiming to address crime should be passed – no matter its cost or lack of data-driven solutions – and that opposing it means you’re “soft on crime.” But that’s like asserting any bill claiming to protect our nation should be passed, whatever wasteful - or unsubstantiated - spending or lack of proven policies it may contain, and that anyone even questioning, or certainly opposing, such a bill is “soft on security.”

Reasonable Kentuckians want policies that reduce crime and recidivism, and keep our state and neighborhoods safe, but that are also fiscally responsible. Protecting lives and property is part of the fabric of our nation. However, policies that lengthen prison sentences and add corrections’ burdens on local communities must be based on sound data and accomplish what all reasonable Kentuckians want: a reduction in crime and safe communities.

Before spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a huge bill, wouldn’t it be prudent to make sure such an investment actually will provide the desired results?

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