Republicans spar over crime omnibus Safer Kentucky Act

Published 1:50 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Republican infighting was on full display Tuesday evening as a Senate committee discussed the best way to move forward with the session’s proposed crime omnibus bill, the Safer Kentucky Act.

Senate Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, sparred with bill sponsor Rep. Jared Bauman and Rep. Jason Nemes, both Louisville Republicans, over which version of the bill to bring for a vote next week—Westerfield’s version or Sen. John Schickel’s version, supported by Bauman.

Westerfield objected to the original bill’s breadth, and submitted his own version of the bill with narrower provisions.

“I don’t fault you for trying to bring something forward, but three-fourths of the bill casts a net that’s three times wider than it needs to be,” he told Bauman.

The Safer Kentucky Act includes over 25 provisions that lengthen sentences, increase criminal penalties and establish new crimes.

While there is no official fiscal impact statement and the total cost is unknown, an analysis by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found that additions to the violent offender statute alone would cost about $878 million in the next decade in the form of lengthier mandatory sentences.

Bill detractors argued that the increased cost of incarceration may be feasible now, when the state is experiencing a historic budget surplus, but will crowd out funding for other desired state programs during a future recession.

“It stretches prisons and jails further past their breaking point and drastically increases spending in our penal system and it costs too much,” said Phillip Lawson of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “While at the same time it could reduce funding for rehabilitation and mental health services, which have shown to positively address crime and recidivism.”

Bauman said he doesn’t care how much it costs when considering the victims of crime.

“I can tell you that the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost of what the impact on this bill would be,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

What’s in the Safer Kentucky Act?

The bill begins with a “three strikes law,” which requires life in prison without the possibility of early release or the death penalty for anyone who commits three separate violent felonies.

Opponents argue that the provision is “historically ineffective and redundant.” Prosecutors can already use the Persistent Felony Offender statute to consider additional penalties for repeat offenders, and research shows traditional three strikes laws are ineffective in deterring crime.

Juvenile hearings

Parents or guardians must attend juvenile hearings, and would be fined up to $500 with up to 40 hours of community service if they don’t.

Westerfield’s version would lower the maximum penalty to a $100 fine and 10 service hours, as well as require courts to accommodate parents’ schedules with the possibility for remote hearings or hearings outside of normal court hours.

He said that many parents can’t make it during the workday, and might not have the disposable income to pay the fine.

Bauman objected to most of Westerfield’s changes.

“I think that if a child is standing before a judge, there is no place that parent should be other than right next to them,” he said.


Bauman’s bill includes several fentanyl provisions. One creates a murder charge for anyone who knowingly sells fentanyl that causes a fatal overdose. If there is no money exchanged, it would be charged as manslaughter.

Detractors worry this would scare people from using the Good Samaritan law, which provides legal immunity to witnesses who call for help in an overdose situation. They also argue that past attempts to increase drug penalties haven’t reduced overdose deaths.

Street camping and homelessness

The bill targets street camping “to protect the rights of property owners, public spaces and business owners across the Commonwealth.”

It bans encampments on public streets, under bridges, in front of businesses and on private property. After a first violation, officers could charge offenders with a misdemeanor.

“Well, homelessness is causing our neighborhoods to spiral down,” said Sen. John Schickel, R-Union. “People are afraid to go out and walk in the evening.”

Westerfield’s version would require officers to provide a referral to mental health and homeless shelter resources before citing someone.

“Right now, the language of your bill hopes someone does something, and there’s no requirement or demand of the system to do anything,” he said. “And if there’s no requirement or demand of the system to do anything, the system typically doesn’t do anything.”

Opponents say that a shortage of affordable housing is the issue, not homelessness. For example, there are 1,600 people experiencing homeless on any given night in Louisville, with a shelter capacity of only 700 people, said Coalition for the Homeless advocacy director George Eklund.

Not all Kentucky counties have a homeless shelter.

The bill would also prevent the use of any state funds for initiatives providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness unless they met certain “behavioral and rehabilitative” requirements. Housing initiative participants would have to agree to treatment for mental health or substance use disorders before becoming eligible.

Detractors say this ignores the Housing First model of treating homelessness, which finds that once housing is stabilized, people are more likely to be able to seek employment or recovery, if necessary.

Violent offenses

Although Kentucky law already includes carjacking under its robbery statute, the Safer Kentucky Act would create a separate carjacking statute, with the same felony charge.

Carjacking would be added to the violent offenses list, as well as attempted murder, wanton endangerment when a gun is fired, second degree robbery, first degree burglary if someone else is present, arson and strangulation.

Violent offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentences before being eligible for any form of early release.

Westerfield objected to the inclusion of second degree robbery and wanton endangerment, which he said do not always meet the level of violence he deems worthy of the violent offenses list.

Fleeing and evading

Jake’s Law would increase sentences and felony charges for those who flee and evade the police.

This expansion of fleeing and evading penalties would cost taxpayers between $300 and $500 million, which Westerfield said seems “excessive.”

His version limits the increased penalties to those who meet certain other criteria, like driving over 30 miles per hour over the speed limit or on the wrong direction of the highway while fleeing and evading.

Shopkeepers’ privilege

Under the bill, business owners and employees would be able to use “reasonable force” to prevent people suspected of shoplifting from escaping with stolen goods.

They would have criminal immunity, but be civilly liable for “failing to exercise reasonable care.”

Westerfield’s version clarifies that deadly force is not acceptable, but Bauman said it wasn’t necessary. Opponents say this provision could increase baseless racial profiling.

Other provisions

The Safer Kentucky Act would remove early release possibilities for those who have a firearm in their possession while committing a crime. Westerfield’s version would change possession to actual firing of a firearm.

Adults who use minors to help them commit a crime would be charged at one level above the normal charge. Some opponents are concerned that in practice, this could impact new 18 year-olds rather than the intended older adults.

Electronic harassment would be added to witness intimidation laws, and repeat violators of protective orders within a five-year period would incur a greater penalty.

To be granted parole, some incarcerated Kentuckians could be compelled to participate in group violence intervention programs.

House Bill 5 will likely be held for a committee vote next week.