A bill dubbed the Gang Violence Prevention Act is testing whether Kentucky’s elected officials have learned anything from the mistakes that fueled alarming increases in the prison population.
House Bill 169, which cleared the House and awaits a hearing in Senate committee, robs judges and the parole board of discretion in setting prison terms for gang members and imposes harsh mandatory minimum sentences and time-served requirements. In many cases, these penalties would fall on 18- and 19-year-olds and even some juveniles.
Police say they need updated legal tools to prosecute and punish adults who recruit children into violent criminal gangs as members or to be trafficked.
But HB 169’s one-size-fits-all approach would do more harm than good in a state that, according to Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley, is 14 months away from running out of prison and jail space.
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Other states are modifying excessive punishments and discredited tough-on-crime policies. As a result, their prison populations are declining. Not Kentucky, where the number of prisoners is projected to climb by 19 percent over the next decade at a yearly cost of $600 million. Despite that, our lawmakers keep coming up with ways to imprison more people for more years.
The Department of Corrections projects that if HB 169 had been applied to gang members currently imprisoned, the additional cost would be $19.5 million. That’s an understatement of the bill’s actual costs, because more Kentuckians would be convicted as gang members under HB 169. Imagine how much violence could be prevented if just a fraction of that money were put into providing positive opportunities and supports to vulnerable kids and neighborhoods.
HB 169 offers little in the way of prevention and goes overboard on punishment, even though research suggests that stiff penalties do little to deter crime. The bill broadens the definition of criminal gangs, which could have as few as three members, and dictates longer terms for those convicted as gang members, even for misdemeanors. An 18-year-old convicted of recruiting a 15-year-old would be guilty of a Class C felony and sentenced to five to 10 years for a first offense.
The bill dictates that a gang member convicted of a violent crime serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole, while other violent offenders often receive parole after serving 20 percent of their sentences. Prisoners who know they have no chance of early release have less incentive to make use of education and other rehab opportunities and more incentive to align with a gang for protection.
It’s troubling that those testifying in favor of HB 169 before the House Judiciary Committee were white people involved in law enforcement. Meanwhile, black clergy, lawmakers and youth workers are warning that the bill’s harsh penalties will fall disproportionately and unfairly on people and communities of color.
The costs of over-incarceration go far beyond just paying for the jails and prisons that suck resources from education as Kentucky struggles with chronic budget crises. Far too many Kentuckians are excluded from any hope for the future by their criminal records. Our incarceration policies are depleting our workforce, which is why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is among the strongest voices calling for criminal-justice reform.
Yet, this legislature is ignoring a criminal-justice reform bill commissioned by Gov. Matt Bevin, who frequently touts the need for getting people out of prison and into the workforce where they will become taxpayers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, have lots of room to improve HB 169.
If they fail, Bevin should make clear that he would veto the measure in its current form.