Coalition speaks out against Safer Kentucky Act

Published 5:24 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2024

A coalition of Kentucky groups is not pleased with this year’s omnibus crime bill, the Safer Kentucky Act.

Tuesday, representatives from the Kentucky Council of Churches, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, People Advocating Recovery, the Louisville Urban League, the Kentucky Equal Justice Center and The Bail Project held a presser on their opposition to the bill.

They said that the Safer Kentucky Act—House Bill 5—will double down on ineffective policies that increase incarceration and exacerbate inequality.

Kaylee Raymer, KyPolicy criminal justice policy analyst, said that the Safer Kentucky Act unnecessarily creates new crimes and increases criminal penalties, which will likely lead to higher incarceration.

Raymer said that sending more people to prison won’t make Kentucky safer.

“Research tells us that longer sentences don’t decrease violent crime or deter people from committing it, that people are almost entirely unaware of sentencing details,” she said. “And there’s a diminished shock value when a long sentence becomes even longer.”

She added that enhanced penalties will separate more families, for longer, while one in ten Kentucky kids already has an incarcerated parent.

It will cost more, too. Raymer said that it costs taxpayers about $105 a day to house one person, and that the state is spending $722 million this year on corrections.

“If Kentucky were a country, we’d be the seventh most incarcerated place in the world,” she said. “If more and longer incarceration were the solution to our problems, wouldn’t we have solved them already?” 

‘Three strikes’ law

The Safer Kentucky Act would create a “three strikes” law requiring life in prison without probation or parole or a death sentence for any individual who commits three felonies in Kentucky.

The felonies must all be separate offenses.

According to KyPolicy, research shows that three strikes laws are ineffective in deterring crime and disproportionately impact people of color.

Felicia Nu’man, Louisville Urban League policy director, said that prosecutors already have a way of increasing penalties for repeat offenders —the persistent felony offender statute—if they decide to use it, based on the facts of the case.

We do not need to take away prosecutorial discretion in sentencing defendants,” Nu’man said. “It will cripple the prosecutor by making it harder to settle cases, causing more delays in justice, more trials and costing local governments more money.”

‘Unnecessary’ provisions

There are several other “unnecessary provisions” in the bill, Nu’man said.

For example, the Safer Kentucky Act requires parents or guardians to attend juvenile court hearings or face a fine of up to $500 and up to 40 hours of community service.

Judges already have the discretion to order parents to show up if they deem it necessary.

However, court is held during the day, and most children in the juvenile justice system are from low-income families, so this would likely disproportionately impact parents working hourly-wage jobs with limited paid time off.

The new carjacking statute is also redundant, Nu’man said. Carjacking is already included under robbery in the penal code as a Class B felony, she said.

Street camping provisions

The Safer Kentucky Act bans homeless encampments on public streets, areas under bridges or overpasses, in front of businesses and on private property.

Camps may include tents, temporary shelters, vehicles, sleeping bags, cots and hammocks.

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, said that the intent is “to protect the rights of property owners, public spaces and business owners across the Commonwealth.”

The first violation of this law would be a warning, and all subsequent violations would count as Class B misdemeanors, which carries a jail sentence of up to 90 days or a fine up to $250.

Kentucky has an affordable housing crisis, according to a KyPolicy analysis. It cited data from annual one-night counts that found that about 4,000 Kentuckians are experiencing homelessness on an average January night in the state.

Also, many communities either lack a homeless shelter or don’t have enough space to meet the need, according to the report.

“HB 5 would make it harder for unhoused people to survive safely, exacerbate the state’s housing problems and disrupt local initiatives aimed at addressing both substance use and housing shortages,” it states.

HB5 would also ban state or federal funds to be used for “any initiatives to provide permanent housing to homeless individuals if those initiatives lack behavioral and rehabilitative requirements.”

The minimum requirements would include stopping the use of illegal drugs and excessive alcohol, consenting to mental health treatment and refraining from committing crimes.

The authors of the KyPolicy analysis state that this method goes against the Housing First model, an established best practice for addressing homelessness.

This model prioritizes getting people experiencing homelessness into stable housing before requiring treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues.

Research shows that once housing is stable, people are more likely to seek out and take advantage of supportive services including recovery and employment.

Increasing criminal penalties for vandalism

Under HB5, destruction of property valued at over $500 would be classified as a Class D felony.

Previously, the felony threshold was $1000. Vandalism can include tenants of rental properties.

People charged with this crime can have their charge reduced to a misdemeanor if they pay restitution and complete at least 60 community service hours.

Ben Carter, senior attorney at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said he was concerned about the implication of this provision on tenants.

If tenants intentionally or wantonly destroy rental property, they may be subject to a felony conviction.

Carter said that in an environment with outdated landlord-tenant laws that don’t require landlords “to meet basic habitability standards,”  the focus on addressing safety issues is misplaced.

Increasing fentanyl-related crime penalties

Under the Safer Kentucky Act, anyone who knowingly shares fentanyl or one of its derivatives with someone and causes their fatal overdose would be convicted of murder, if an exchange of money was involved, or manslaughter, if not.

The KyPolicy analysis points out that Kentucky has increased criminal penalties in the last decade, and argues that these efforts have been ineffective in reducing overdose deaths.

In 2017, the legislature passed a law that made trafficking of fentanyl a more serious crime. In 2022, it increased the minimum portion of the sentence offenders have to serve from 50% to 85%.

In 2019, it made illegal distribution of a Schedule I or II drug causing a fatal overdose second degree manslaughter—a Class C felony with a five to ten year sentence.

KyPolicy cited a Pew analysis showing that there was no significant correlation between the rate of imprisonment for drug offenses in states and their rates of drug use.

If incarceration were effective in deterrence, there should be a significant relationship between the two, the study argues.

Tara Hyde, CEO of People Advocating Recovery, said that this provision could have unintended consequences.

It may discourage people from seeking help during overdose situations for fear of legal repercussions, as well as perpetuate the stigma of addiction.

The study controlled for education levels, unemployment rates, racial diversity and median household income.

Nu’man said that Kentucky cannot continue to incarcerate everyone.

It is a purely emotional response,” she said.

“We should only incarcerate people for long periods of time when we are terrified of the violent acts they might commit, not because we are angry that they’re making our lives inconvenient and have a mental health problem like addiction.”