Safer Kentucky Act passes committee after 3-hour discussion

Published 2:33 am Friday, January 19, 2024

This session’s omnibus crime bill will move forward, and potentially be heard on the House floor as early as next week.

The Safer Kentucky Act, sponsored by Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, received a favorable committee vote Thursday afternoon after a three-hour discussion.

The bill includes 26 penal enhancements, 11 policy changes, two new penalties and one new crime.

“With this bill, House Bill 5, we are reasserting some basic and simple truths,” Bauman said. “And that is that criminals, not society, are accountable for their actions.”

Among other provisions, if passed, the bill would:

  • create a “three strikes law” that would require those who commit three separate violent felonies to be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty;
  • add a separate carjacking statute and make the crime a Class B felony;
  • ban street camping on public streets, in vehicles, on private property and in front of businesses;
  • prohibit housing initiatives that spend any state money to house individuals experiencing homelessness unless they enter treatment services for mental health or substance abuse;
  • create a drug-induced homicide charge for those who knowingly sell fentanyl to someone who fatally overdoses from the drug;
  • limit charitable bail organizations to $5,000 bails, only for non-violent offenses; and
  • allow business owners to use “reasonable force” to detain people they believe are shoplifting.

Thirteen members of the House Judicial Committee voted in favor of the bill, five voted against it and one abstained from the vote.

Committee substitute changes

Since its introduction, the Safer Kentucky Act has undergone a few changes. As of Friday morning, the committee substitute was not posted online for public viewing.

However, Bauman explained some of the changes during the meeting.

First, he removed changes to the parole board, which would have increased the vote threshold required to approve parole.

Second, Bauman said he removed the ban on using federal funds to permanently house individuals experiencing homelessness who aren’t enrolled in behavioral and rehabilitative programs. The ban on using state funds remains.

Third, he loosened the standards for involuntary commitment by requiring only one of three conditions for involuntary commitment currently in law to be met instead of all.

The original bill version also removed the requirement that an individual have a demonstrated history of criminal behavior that caused harm to others for involuntary commitment.

Fourth, he removed attempted murder of a first responder as a capital offense, since it is not death-penalty eligible.

Fifth, he gave schools more flexibility in a provision of the bill that requires them to report threats to law enforcement.

Finally, Bauman removed the enhanced penalty for fleeing and evading the police when the fleeing occurs on foot, unless someone is killed or injured.

Supporters’ comments

Bauman brought several families of crime victims to testify to the committee.

They include the family of Madelynn Troutt, who died at 17 after a man who was bailed out by a charitable bail organization killed her while driving on the wrong side of the road in a stolen vehicle, as well as the family of Jake Luxembourger, a 10-year old who died in a collision with a man who was fleeing police.

Courtney Baxter, a commonwealth’s attorney, said that prosecutors “generally support” the bill, and that it would give them “much needed resources we need to hold those offenders accountable.”

Ryan Straw, vice president of the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police, said that his organization wanted to be outspoken in its support for the Safer Kentucky Act.

Straw said that the group of about 11,000 law enforcement officers in Kentucky particularly supports the fentanyl provisions, including the drug-induced homicide provision and one increasing the penalty for smuggling fentanyl contraband into jails.

He also called charitable bail reform an “unmitigated disaster” and praised Bauman’s efforts to limit bail organizations’ power.

Several committee members also lended their support to Bauman.

Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, said that “radical” criminal justice reform has led to a society too lax on punishment for crime.

“We have tried to humanize people who are criminals and cause harm to our society,” he said. “We try to create victims out of them, rather than truly protecting the citizens of this Commonwealth.”

Opposition’s remarks

Representatives from nine advocacy groups and nonprofits showed up to testify against House Bill 5.

They shared a few concerns. Many labeled the bill as an attempt to “incarcerate ourselves out of an issue.”

But research shows that method doesn’t work.

Instead, people including Louisville Metro Councilwoman Shameka Parrish-Wright argued that this bill would criminalize poverty in a poor state, instead of addressing underlying issues that cause homelessness—like a lack of affordable housing and treatment options for mental health and substance abuse.

Many took issue with the street camping provisions. Jason Hall of the Catholic Conference said it was “counterproductive to use law enforcement and the criminal justice system as the “primary frontline means to address homelessness.”

George Eklund of the Coalition for the Homeless said that the bill doesn’t do anything to help people get off the streets and into housing.

While the bill states that localities may designate a spot for unhoused people to camp legally, Eklund said that not every county has a homeless shelter, and those that do often have too few beds to meet the demand.

For example, in Louisville, there are 1,600 people experiencing homelessness on a given night, while the city’s shelter capacity is 700.

Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, agreed with Eklund. Doan voted against the bill, asking that the bill authors require counties to address this issue, pointing out that animal shelters are required in every county, but not homeless shelters.

“If we’re going to criminalize street camping, we’re going to put these people in jail, let’s at least make sure that the government is providing a place for people to go,” he said.

Another major concern was the fentanyl provisions.

Opponents, including Sarah Durand of Kentucky Free, worried that the drug-induced homicide provision would discourage witnesses of overdoses from taking advantage of Kentucky’s Good Samaritan law.

These laws give witnesses who call for help civil and criminal immunity.

Finally, Felicia Nu’man of the Louisville Urban League said that this bill is unnecessary, since prosecutors already have the tools they need.

She said that they already have the ability to enhance penalties, cover all the crimes someone might commit and have access to the persistent felony offender statute to give harsher sentences to repeat offenders.

This bill would remove their discretion in deciding those sentences though, which would make settling cases out of court more difficult and court delays more common.

“Study after study show incarceration and higher penalties has absolutely no effect on drug use or drug trafficking,: Nu’man said. “We need evidence based solutions for crime, not reactionary measures.”