Criminal justice reform and the General Assembly

BY MARGARET GARDINER

Boyle Women’s Network

Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto spoke to the March meeting of The Women’s Network in Boyle about  criminal justice reform and the General Assembly.  With her background as a public defender, law professor, and lobbyist in Frankfort, she presented many insights into the legislative process, legislators, and the judicial bills before the General Assembly. Her nonprofit civil rights firm, The Institute for Compassion in Justice, is devoted to the development of policies that serve youth from birth to 25 years and respond to the realities of youthful immaturity.

DiLoreto began her talk by noting that 2021 was a short session of the General Assembly, but atypically had to produce a one-year budget because of COVID pandemic. Still, legislators filed a number of criminal justice bills.

It was expected that only bills with Republican sponsors would move through the House and Senate as Republican majorities control both chambers.

For example, Louisville House Democrat Attica Scott pre-filed HB 21, called Breonna’s Law, to ban no-knock warrants. Protests in Louisville and across the Commonwealth followed the death of Breonna Taylor in a poorly planned and executed, middle-of-the-night raid on this healthcare worker’s home.

Rep. Scott sought a hearing on her bill before the session when the House and Senate Judiciary met, but was not given that hearing.

Several weeks into the session, Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican, introduced SB 4 which restricts no-knock warrants in certain situations. His bill quickly passed the Senate and was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee the same day that Scott’s bill only received a hearing, without a vote.

DiLoreto explained that Rep. Scott was responding to her constituents in drafting her bill while Senator Stivers was responding to many people from across the Commonwealth who had concerns about Ms. Taylor’s death and police over-reaching. Though HB 21 has not moved forward, amendments have continued to be added onto SB 4.

Groups like the NAACP and the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers oppose the amendments and hope that something useful will pass to restrict no-knock warrants and ensure the safety of people in their homes.  Bills in both the Senate and House often die by not being assigned to a committee, not being heard by the committee to which the bill was assigned, or not being given a vote by the committee even if they are heard. Bills are seldom called for a vote unless the Chair and sponsor know from a tally of members whether the bill will pass.

Emails, phone calls and the testimony of concerned and impacted persons can influence bill passage. Lobbyists know that personal stories make an emotional impact on discussions. Unfortunately at times, unnecessary, unconstitutional or harmful legislation can pass driven by emotional stories rather than solid facts and real consequences.

Kentucky has a penal code that was drafted in the 1970s. Through the years, the code has gotten increasingly disorganized with competing provisions driven by emotional responses to events without considering the overall consistency of the criminal code.

Kentucky spent time and resources in 2003 to completely revise the penal code. An excellent draft was completed with input from all stakeholders, but it was not presented to the General Assembly because of opposition by some leading prosecutors.

DiLoreto pointed to two other bills that are likely to succeed and provide minor reforms this session.

HB 126, introduced by the Chairman of House Judiciary, C. Massey, will raise the threshold required for felony theft from $500 to $1000. This bill is designed to create appropriate punishment rather than to felonize all shop-lifting offenses. Felony convictions result in loss of employment, loss of voting rights, loss of home and access to critical public benefits necessary to help someone get back on their feet.

Also, such convictions can result in long-term incarceration costly to the Commonwealth.

For juvenile justice, Senate Judiciary Chair W. Westerfield sponsored SB 36. This bill restores discretion to prosecutors and judges to keep a youth in the juvenile court system when a gun is involved. Under current law, passed in the mid-1990s, the decision to transfer the child to adult court is understood to be mandatory for prosecutors and judges in that particular case.

Afterwards, DiLoreto provided participants with emailed handouts of resources to assist their understanding of the criminal justice system and the need for reform.