Sen. Gerald Neal spoke against HB 169 at a news conference hosted by the Louisville Urban League and ACLU of Kentucky. | Screenshot via Louisville Urban League video

The Louisville Urban League and ACLU of Kentucky held a news conference Wednesday morning urging members of the Kentucky General Assembly to not pass House Bill 169 — the so-called gang bill — when the legislature reconvenes for the last two days of the session on Friday.

The sponsors of HB 169 say the bill is a way to target those who recruit young people into criminal gangs and combat the recent increase in violent crime, as it expands the legal definition of a gang and increases mandatory sentences for gang members who commit crimes.

The bill passed the House last month by a large majority, and has the support of the Kentucky State Police, Louisville Metro Police Department and Mayor Greg Fischer.

The Senate is expected to take up and also pass HB 169 on Friday or Saturday, but the Urban League and ACLU are pleading with legislators to abandon the measure, arguing that it could lead to racial profiling and place even more of a burden on the state’s overcrowded jail system.

Michael Aldridge, the executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, cited the example of a similar gang bill passed eight years ago in Mississippi, under which not a single white person has been arrested — despite officials estimating that a majority of the gang members statewide are white.

Aldridge added that HB 169 is projected to cost the state $19 million because of increased incarcerations, which could actually increase gang membership by introducing more individuals to gangs in jail where they seek protection.

“Every single dollar we spend unnecessarily incarcerating people is a dollar we divert away from programs like education and public services,” Aldridge said. “And this bill alone has a $19 million price tag attached to it. We can’t afford this bill financially, and we can’t afford this bill morally.”

Sadiqa Reynolds, the president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, compared the anti-gang bill to past efforts to deal with the crack cocaine epidemic in the black community with mass incarceration.

Reynolds called HB 169 another “dangerous” and shortsighted attempt at “moving the problem” to jails — potentially increasing crimes like vandalism to felonies — instead of focusing policies and funding toward young people to help close the racial achievement gap in schools.

“It is interesting to me that when it comes time to pay for police and jails and prisons, our resources do seem to be unlimited,” Reynolds said. “But when you’re talking about the front end, changing polices or preventative measures, we are very, very limited in what we get to dream about and how we get to pursue those options.”

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, also spoke and criticized the backers of the bill for lacking research and using anecdotal evidence to support it, calling it the “easy way” of dealing with crime, instead of investing in preventative measures.

Neal also touted an amendment he will try to attach to the bill requiring future legislation to have a racial impact assessment, similar to what state Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, tried and failed to attached to the bill in the House.

Jean Porter, the spokeswoman for Fischer, issued a statement to Insider Louisville indicating that the mayor still supports HB 169 “as a targeted effort to hold accountable those people who recruit young people into a gang or commit crimes as a gang.”

She also stated that it was important to note that the bill does not make it a crime to be a member of a gang, and the option to increase the severity of a sentence because of a gang affiliation happens only after that person is convicted of another crime.

Porter added that youthful offenders would not be included under the statute in the current Senate version of the bill, and the mayor supports the racial impact assessment amendment of Neal and Scott.

The Senate version of the bill that could be taken up and voted on Friday or Saturday has been slightly amended from the version passed by the House, which means that chamber would then have to pass the bill again for the governor to sign it into law.

In January of 2017, a joint task force of state and federal prosecutors, FBI, ATF, DEA and LMPD was formed to combat gang activity in Louisville and the city’s historic increase in violent crime.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]