Sweeping legislation that would keep felons locked up after a third violent offense won approval Thursday from a Kentucky House committee that heard mixed reviews about its potential to combat crime.

The measure has emerged as a top priority this year in the Republican-dominated House. The proposal cleared the House Judiciary Committee after a long and at times emotional hearing. Lawmakers heard heart-wrenching testimony from people who lost loved ones as a result of violent crimes.

“With this bill, we are reasserting some basic and simple truths, and that is that criminals — not society — are accountable for their actions,” said Republican Rep. Jared Bauman, the bill’s lead sponsor. “And society has the right to protect itself from the criminal element.”


The bill’s critics raised doubts about whether it would make a dent in crime. They said it fails to address the many complex issues that can lead to criminal activity.

“It is not going to deter criminals who are going to do those crimes because we are not addressing any of these underlying reasons for those crimes in this bill,” said Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni.

The measure advanced on a 13-5 committee vote and now heads to the full House. In a clear sign of the bill’s popularity, its cosponsors total slightly more than half of the chamber’s entire membership. The measure would head to the GOP-led Senate if it passes the full House.

A key component of the bill is its three-strikes provision. People convicted of three violent felonies would face life in prison. The bill would increase penalties for several other crimes as well.

Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron expressed doubts that the tougher provisions would make people safer.

“No time in the state of Kentucky, or in our nation, have we been able to incarcerate ourselves out of any issue — ever,” Herron said.

Bauman disagreed, saying that increasing incarceration of violent offenders would reduce crime.

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, another leading supporter of the bill, said it was unfair to claim that Kentucky is trying to “incarcerate ourselves out” of the crime problem. He noted that Kentucky has significantly increased the number of treatment beds for people struggling with addiction.

“That is what we are about — recovery, helping folks who need to be recovered,” Nemes said. “But we’re also about people who commit violence on our people, putting them away for a long time. That’s what this bill is supposed to do.”

The legislation also seeks to crack down on the prevalence of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid seen as a key factor in the state’s high death toll from drug overdoses. The bill would toughen penalties for knowingly selling fentanyl or a fentanyl derivative that results in a fatal overdose.

The measure also would create a standalone carjacking law and increase penalties for several crimes, ranging from attempted murder to fleeing or evading police. Other provisions aim to crack down on drive-by shootings and would offer both workers and business owners civil and criminal immunity in cases where they tried to prevent theft or protect themselves and their stores. It also would limit bail payments by charitable bail organizations.