FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT) - A bill designed to toughen Kentucky's laws against gangs has taken a step forward.
The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 169 on Wednesday. It now goes to the full House for consideration.
HB 169 cracks down on gang activity and gang recruitment by stiffening penalties. The bill also changes how gangs and gang activity are defined and identified, reducing the number of people considered to be a "criminal gang syndicate" from five to three or more.
The bill makes gang recruitment by adults a felony, and would require those convicted to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Right now, that charge is a misdemeanor, leaving those convicted of the crime to serve at most a year in prison, the bill's sponsor said.
"We've got to make sure that we're protecting particularly young people in our communities from the entrapment of gangs," said Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, an attorney. "Because what's that going to lead to? Ultimately probably either imprisonment or, worse, death."
The bill also strengthens penalties for other crimes committed in the furtherance of gang activity, as an effort to target the underlying issues behind human trafficking, drug trafficking and arms trafficking.
Passage of the bill would mark the first significant change to Kentucky's criminal gang laws since Prohibition, lawmakers said. HB 169 would put Kentucky on par with many other states - and the federal government - who already have updated theirs, Benvenuti said.
Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn testified in favor of the bill. She told WKYT's Garrett Wymer that the bill provides a needed update of Kentucky's criminal gang laws, because the old laws on the books are "inadequate and antiquated." She said it is also a way to protect young people.
Rep. Benvenuti echoed that.
"We have folks as young as eight, nine, 10 years old being actively recruited into gangs, then being used as pawns to commit crimes," Rep. Benvenuti said.
But not everyone is on board with the bill.
Rep. Benvenuti filed a similar bill during the 2017 session - HB 315 - to revise Kentucky's criminal gang laws. It passed the House overwhelmingly by a 91-3 vote, but the bill eventually got hung up in a committee after going to the Senate, over concerns about funding and costs.
Opponents also testified Wednesday about concerns that the bill could have serious unintended consequences of incriminating someone because of where they live or who they know. A pastor with the Kentucky Council of Churches called the bill "a criminal justice maze with few ways out."
Rep. Benvenuti said he will likely bring the bill to a vote on the floor of the House in the next couple of weeks. If it passes the House, it will go to the Senate, where it will be considered by a committee before heading to the full Senate. The bill has an emergency clause, which means if it passes both houses and is signed into law, it will go into effect immediately.