Safer Kentucky Act passes, mostly on party lines

Published 7:06 pm Thursday, January 25, 2024

FRANKFORT — After an hours-long floor debate, this session’s crime omnibus bill got House approval, mostly on party lines.

The Safer Kentucky Act includes nearly two dozen provisions that include increased criminal penalties, harsher sentences and new crimes.

For example, it increases the penalty for fleeing the police, creates a “three strikes” law ensuring a life sentence or death penalty for repeat violent felony offenders and bans street camping on public streets.

The vote was 77-22, with Republican Reps. Felicia Rabourn, Savannah Maddox, Steven Doan joining the Democrats in voting against the bill, while Democrat Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty was the lone “yes” of her party.

“The foundation for civilized society in Kentucky is public safety, security and protection,” said sponsor Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville. “And our foundation is broken.”

Bauman cited several statistics, including that Kentucky’s overdose death rate is 57% higher than the national average and retail crime costs Kentucky businesses nearly $1 billion a year.

Changes in the bill

The final version was slightly different from the previous version, after Bauman presented a floor amendment with several changes.

The amendment weakened the proposed sentence for drug-induced homicide—selling or transferring fentanyl that causes a fatal overdose—from murder to manslaughter.

It also removes the possibility for early release for anyone who possesses a firearm while committing a crime if they are a previously convicted felon, the firearm is stolen or they are already on early release for a violent offense.

The amendment edits the street camping ban to allow people to temporarily sleep in their vehicles while lawfully parked.

Additionally, it amends the shopkeepers’ privilege provision to allow employees to be held civilly liable if they fail to use “reasonable force” against someone they believe is stealing from a business. Shopkeepers can still not be held criminally liable.

Lastly, the amendment exempts “statutorily created housing programs” from the ban on using state funds to permanently house people experiencing homelessness who don’t agree to certain behavioral and rehabilitative treatments.

Republican support

Likely aware that the bill was sure to pass, very few Republicans spoke on the floor in its support.

Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, was one. He said that he has been getting constant emails telling him that if he supports this bill, he lacks empathy. He was a yes vote regardless, and said that while the bill isn’t perfect, it moves Kentucky in the right direction.

He’s glad that the bill allows “incredibly successful” programming for homeless people in Lexington to continue.

“I believe this bill draws a line in the sand about what we expect in our communities,” Timoney said. “We might not all agree and we definitely don’t agree where that line is. But it has to be drawn.”

Rep. William Wade, R-Earlington, also shared his support as a former law enforcement officer.

He said he was constantly frustrated by the hard work of solving violent crime and sometimes putting himself at physical risk only for the perpetrators to get let out of jail and recommit crime.

Citing sources

After trying and failing to divide the bill into multiple bills and postpone the vote until a full fiscal analysis is complete, House Democrats took turns sharing their objections to the bill—which were many.

Their first objection was not being provided the data and studies Bauman used in crafting this bill, despite asking multiple times.

At one point in the debate, Bauman spent 13 minutes sharing some of the titles of his sources.

Later, Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville said that some of the sources he repeatedly cited contradicted what’s in House Bill 5.

For example, she said one study Bauman cited found that “the traditional criminal justice response to violent crime in the urban context has the potential to exacerbate problems.”

Willner said that while evidence shows that increasing penalties does not deter crime, there are evidence-based policy solutions to public health emergencies, like investing in the mental health workforce, removing barriers for those seeking treatment and enacting common-sense gun laws.

The cost of incarceration

Second, Democrats stated their concerns about the cost of increased incarceration.

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, who dubbed HB5 the “Suffer Kentucky Act,” said that this bill takes a complex issue, with multiple root problems, and uses incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution.

One Class A capital felon costs Kentucky a minimum of $853,589, Raymond said.

“In the Education Committee this week, we’re not sure we’ll get the $10 million we need to teach math better to our hundreds of thousands of kids,” she said.

According to the original bill’s fiscal note, the Safer Kentucky Act would have a “significant impact” on corrections, which means over a million dollars.

Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville, asked if Bauman had a more specific number. Bauman responded that crime is costing America $5 trillion a year, and that the cost of this bill “pales in comparison.”

Stalker added that Kentucky is currently experiencing a jail crisis, with overcrowded facilities. This would increase the number of people incarcerated, she said.

Bauman said that he expects the criminal activity in Kentucky to decrease under this bill. Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, added that the legislature would make sure they have the capacity and funding “if people make poorly bad choices and continue to break the laws in this Commonwealth.”

Street camping provisions

Rep. Lindsey Burke, D-Lexington, said that according to Kentucky’s Homeless Coalition, there are many more homeless people in Kentucky than beds available.

She added that half of Kentucky renters spend over a third of their income on housing.

Burke argued that this bill criminalizes homelessness, instead of focusing on creating affordable housing, including the 78,000 additional affordable rentals needed to meet the need.

Republicans argued that the bill allows localities to create a designated space, like a homeless shelter, for people to sleep. Burke responded that not every county does that because it is not mandated or funded.

Her floor amendment to eliminate the street camping provisions failed, mostly on party lines.

Other Democratic opposition

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, said that there are multiple strategies to making Kentucky safer that deter people from ever committing crimes, like ensuring their basic needs.

“We are saying to the offenders,what is wrong with you? Why don’t you behave? We are going to increase the penalties to get you to behave,” she said. “What if instead of saying what’s wrong with you, we say what happened to you, well before the individual commits a violent crime?”

Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, had issues with the shopkeepers’ privilege section of the bill.

She said that that Iroquois High School in Jefferson County, there are over 40 languages spoken by the most recent graduates. This array of languages may lead to miscommunication in businesses, Herron said.

It reminds her of Emmett Till, she added.

“I believe that this provision takes us back to 1955, when it was okay to hunt down people based off an accusation,” she said.