People in custody and awaiting trial in Kentucky would have the right to a release hearing after spending three to six months in jail under a bill introduced in the state Senate.
Senate Bill 31 is the latest in a yearslong effort to reform the state’s bail system, which critics say penalizes low-income people who can’t afford to pay their bail.
Sen. Brandon Storm, a Republican from London and bill sponsor, said the measure would bolster Kentuckians’ rights to swift trial under the Sixth Amendment as well as the state constitution.
“So if it’s a right that we have, the right to go to church, the right to free speech, we shouldn’t have to ask to invoke that right,” Storm said during a discussion in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “This is a conservative bill, it’s about liberty, it’s about the fact that we have constitutional right to a speedy trial.”
SB 31 would require any person denied pretrial release, or who can’t afford bail, the right to a release hearing after spending three to six months in custody without trial. The bill applies after three months for misdemeanors, six months for felonies and doesn’t apply to capital offenses such as murder.
Judges would still retain the discretion to prevent a person’s release for convincing evidence they pose a risk to themselves or others. The bill also allows leeway for prosecutors and judges to extend the time periods for good cause, and while waiting on evidence from the Kentucky State Police forensic lab. Language in the bill does not describe what constitutes “good cause.”
Kentucky judges already assess the risk for people accused of crimes, set bail and can require higher amounts for people accused of more serious crimes. The days that people awaiting trial spend in custody are applied to their sentence, if convicted.
A 2019 study from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found only 39% of people who have to post bail were released ahead of their trial.
At the committee hearing, a state judge and prosecutor said the measures would further strain an already under-resourced system.
Courtney Baxter, a Commonwealth’s Attorney with the 12th Judicial Circuit which includes Henry, Oldham and Trimble counties, said the bill would result in pushing back other court dates to meet the new deadlines, meaning delays for others who also have right to a speedy trial.
“In my jurisdiction, just like many others, [indictments] have nearly doubled, while the resources available to the court system, the lab, law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders has remained relatively stagnant, which poses a major obstacle,” Baxter said.
While Baxter expressed concerns the bill would overburden courts, the Kentucky Association of Counties endorsed the measure as a means to reduce the fiscal burden on counties.
Government Relations Director Shellie Hampton said counties have no control over populations of people in custody, who shows up and how long they stay.
“For us this has been a long time coming,” Hampton said. “The longer they are in there, the more they are away from their support systems, away from their families, away from their jobs.”
Despite support from influential elected leaders including the chair of the Sen. Judiciary Committee, bail reform efforts have received little traction in recent years, often due to opposition from prosecutors and judges.