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Criminologists cited in support of Safer Kentucky Act wonder why

An LMPD cruiser sits outside the LMPD Downtown Area Patrol building.
J. Tyler Franklin
The so-called Safer Kentucky Act touches on nearly every corner of the criminal justice system. The bill’s sponsor says the changes are needed to fight back against a wave of violent crime and he's got the research to back it up.

The sponsors of the so-called Safer Kentucky Act say the extensive legislation is proven to reduce crime and that they have evidence to back it up, but several researchers they cite cast doubt on the legislation’s intended effect.

Republican lawmakers cited a list of more than 100 academic sources in support of tough-on-crime legislation that would put more Kentuckians behind bars for longer.

Louisville Republican Rep. Jared Bauman released the list late last month following multiple requests from journalists and Democratic lawmakers.

“[The sources] demonstrate that increasing incarceration of violent offenders will absolutely, unequivocally lead to safer communities and less crime,” Bauman said in a committee hearing.

Kentucky Public Radio reviewed his source list and spoke with a half-dozen researchers he cited. Here’s what we found:

  • About two dozen of the studies and articles Bauman cited detail the impacts of crime, but don't speak to the bill's approach toward policy.
  • About 40% of the articles Bauman cited appear to have little to nothing to do with the legislation. 
  • More than half listed were published 10 or more years ago.  

In total, only about a third of the 117 articles Bauman cited had anything to do with penalty enhancements or any of the sweeping bill’s other measures. Even among the articles and studies related to the bill, some authors said their research doesn’t necessarily support the legislation — and the consensus of criminology research paints a different picture too.

Some experts Bauman cited are renowned criminal justice reformers who spent their careers arguing for alternative methods to deterring crime or exposing the racial biases of the American justice system.

Several researchers KPR interviewed cast doubt on the bill’s ability to deter violent crime. Some acknowledged potential benefits, but suggested other methods would be far more effective. Other academics were surprised to be cited at all.

Bauman said his bill addresses a wave of pandemic-era crime that has left Kentuckians afraid.

“Men and women have spent their entire lives in a neighborhood, but are now afraid to leave their home,” he said in a statement.

But several researchers he cited questioned the premise that the violent crime surge many cities experienced during the pandemic warrants lasting changes to a state’s criminal code.

“There's a pretty good case to be made that that blip is gone. 2021 was an outlier,” said Todd Clear, a Rutgers University professor of criminal justice, who was cited in Bauman’s source list. “And you should never use extreme outliers as foundations for making long-term policy.”

House Bill 5 passed out of the Kentucky House of Representatives last month and is now under consideration in the state Senate.

The tough-on-crime legislation would enhance penalties for more than two dozen crimes. It would outlaw street camping, and add unlawful camping to the state’s stand your ground laws. It would charge people who use drugs for knowingly giving someone fentanyl. It would add new restrictions on charitable bail funds and expand the definition of violent crimes to include attempted offenses.

In a statement provided to KPR, Bauman said his source list provides a detailed and thorough background of his bill.

“HB 5 will cut down on recidivism and the revolving door effect we currently experience within the criminal justice system,” he said in a statement. “It would provide for more appropriate penalties for those who commit the most heinous crimes such as murder, rape, and other violent offenses.”

Digging into the source list

Bauman unveiled his source list on the House floor prior to its passage in a 74-22 vote, largely on party lines. Following a prompt from a Democratic lawmaker, he read the names and titles in a speech that lasted almost 15 minutes before he was cut off.

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
LRC Public Information
Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 5, or the Safer Kentucky Act, on the House floor on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

The list included names like Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist known for his writings on the Black experience and white supremacy. The article he cited, “Beyond the Code of the Street,” is an unlikely inclusion as evidence for a bill that would increase prison sentences:

“Some people come up expecting to win. We came up hoping not to lose. Even in victory, the distance between expectation and results is dizzying for both,” Coates wrote.

As research analysis continued, it became clear that while some articles did weigh the effects of incarceration, roughly 50 of the 117 cited studies seemed to have little to do with the measure.

Several studies looked into the connection between vacant properties and crime. Others made the case for more policing. Three of the articles were explicitly about the connection between insufficient street lighting and crime. Bauman’s measure doesn’t address urban blight or police funding.

Many studies explored the benefits of employment-oriented re-entry programs. Those programs are also not included in the bill.

Another two dozen studies examine the impacts of crime. Several demonstrate the effect of crime on childhood development. Others estimate crime’s cost on businesses. Several studies delved into the sociological makeup of gang activity, but were not evaluations of or recommendations for policy.

More than half the sources Bauman listed were published over a decade ago. University of Delaware sociology professor Christine Visher said she was surprised to see herself cited in support of a tough-on-crime bill for a paper she wrote in 1987.

“I was just a young whippersnapper coming out of graduate school when I wrote that paper,” Visher said.

At the time, she was weighing the costs and benefits of a “lock’ em up strategy.” Today, Visher is a preeminent scholar on ways to help people re-enter society after prison.

After reviewing her 1987 paper, she said it noted a minimal benefit to incarceration, but she doesn’t believe the benefits outweigh the costs of increased incarceration.

“To pull that article from 1987 and try to apply it to 2024 just seems to me to be really inappropriate,” Visher said.

Sentence enhancements can have limited deterrent effects

Some of the research Bauman cited did show increasing prison sentences can deter people from committing crimes.

An article by University of Pennsylvania’s David Abrams, a professor of law, business economics and public policy, is in the source list. His paper demonstrated that sentence enhancements can have deterrent effects.

“But — there's a big ‘but’ — not that much. It doesn't necessarily tell us what the right policy decision is,” Abrams said.

His research was focused on the effects of “add-on” gun laws in decreasing gun robberies. These add-on laws create additional penalties if a gun is used in the commission of a crime. The study found a roughly 5% decline in gun robberies. Abrams said that small decrease isn’t necessarily proof that all sentence enhancements deter crime.

Like Visher, he also said incarceration is not often considered to be the best or most cost-effective method of crime deterrence.

Crime, the pandemic and the effects of longer prison sentences

Several authors whose research was relevant to the bill said they were skeptical of the main premise of the Safer Kentucky Act.

During the pandemic, in 2021 in particular, violent crime, especially murders, increased substantially. That increase was a driving factor for why the bill’s sponsors say they need to take action now.

But Clear, with Rutgers University, said the pandemic-era trend is already reversing itself without the need for further intervention. Federal Bureau of Investigation data for 2022 shows a sharp decrease in violent crimes in Kentucky, although some specific crimes have yet to return fully to pre-pandemic levels.

A report from the Council on Criminal Justice found that in several cities across the country, “crime rates are largely returning to pre-COVID levels as the nation distances itself from the height of the pandemic,” while noting some crimes are still at elevated levels.

Abrams with the University of Pennsylvania agreed. He said making drastic changes based on unusual circumstances doesn’t make sense in the long haul.

“Criminal justice policies should be aimed at our long-term understanding of what works to reduce crime. [The] pandemic was a pretty unusual period of time we're still trying to understand,” Abrams said. “But I think it's fair to say, as long as we're not gonna get into a lot of repeat pandemics, it doesn't have as much use for long-term criminal justice policy.”

Clear told KPR he couldn’t see how his research would support a bill that would lead to longer prison sentences.

“Somebody saw [my] citation or something and didn't read it,” Clear said.

His research focuses on how high imprisonment rates have rippling negative effects on communities. The source list includes his 2008 piece, “The effects of high imprisonment rates on communities.” Clear said that research showed nearly all of the effects are negative.

“The idea that we just want to increase the number of experiences of incarceration in places as a way of making those places better is just wrong,” Clear said. “It’s just wrong.”

Clear said the majority of the criminology community is behind him.

“Let the people who are proposing this bill randomly select 50 criminologists who have written on this subject, and if they can find five who say this bill is a good idea they should pass it,” Clear said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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