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Here’s what’s in the GOP's tough-on-crime bill called the Safer Kentucky Act

Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, (center); Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, (left); and House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, listen as members of the House Standing Committee on Judiciary ask questions about House Bill 5, legislation related to crime on Thursday, January 18, 2024.
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Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, (center); Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, (left); and House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, listen as members of the House Standing Committee on Judiciary ask questions about House Bill 5, legislation related to crime on Thursday, January 18, 2024.

The omnibus tough-on-crime bill often called the Safer Kentucky Act passed a Senate committee despite a “no” vote from the committee chair.

At the bottom of this story is a list of the provisions in House Bill 5. 

After a back-and-forth over substituted language this week, the version of the Safer Kentucky Act that passed committee Thursday included slight changes, but kept the vast majority the same — including a violent felony offender three strikes law and a street camping ban.

The 78-page legislation would put more people in jail for longer, increase fines and could cost the state more than a billion dollars over the next decade.

Republicans say the measure is necessary to combat violent crime despite the state having comparatively low rates and stiff penalties resulting in the ninth highest incarceration rate in the country at 530 people per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2021.

Formerly homeless and incarcerated people lined up to speak out against House Bill 5 at an overflowing Thursday committee meeting. Stephanie Johnson, a coordinator with VOCAL Kentucky, said she had previously struggled with addiction and homelessness.

“We cannot arrest our way out of poverty and into a solution that has no positive result,” said Johnson. “Yes, the House majority is in favor of this bill. However, I am quite sure that the majority of Kentucky is not.”

The bill passed the committee with seven “yes” votes. Both Democrats and the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Fruit Hill, voted against the bill. It will now go to the Senate floor for a vote.

Since the bill passed the House, senators have proposed a series of competing committee substitutes to change or preserve elements of the bill. The committee eventually adopted the last of four substitutes, brought by former police officer and jailer Sen. John Schickel from Union. The fourth substitute was given to committee members shortly before the hearing.

Schickel’s version is fairly similar to the one that passed the House, but it includes a few small compromises proposed earlier in the week by Westerfield, the chairman of the House Judiciary committee. His original proposal included more extensive changes, and even that one “doesn’t make half the changes I’d like to make,” Westerfield posted online.

In a news conference before Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats like Rep. Keturah Herron of Louisville decried HB 5 as “by far the single most harmful legislation that we have seen” this year.

“From our urban communities to our rural communities, Kentuckians are asking for relief, for affordable housing. And instead House Bill 5 is investing in housing for Kentuckians to be housed in our local jails and prisons,” Herron said.

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal from Louisville, who later voted against HB 5 in committee, said he considers all the proposed version to be virtually the same, with the same consequences.

“Fundamentally, this needs to go back to the drawing board,” Neal said. “There needs to be a long-term perspective on this. It must be rooted and grounded in significant data, so that it's calculated to get the results that I think the sponsors aspire for.”

Kentucky Public Radio previously reported the list of sources presented on the House floor and provided to reporters appears to be copied directly from a policy paper written for Atlanta, with no attribution.

Several groups have also spoken on concerns about the fiscal costs of the bill. A Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting investigation found that many county jails are already overcrowded with state prisoners and may not be able to handle the burden of increased penalties under HB 5.

Advocates say “unlawful camping” ban would hurt homeless people

Proponents of the bill pushed back at the idea that the ban wasn’t in the best interest of homeless people, calling it “tough love.” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers pointed to $10 million in the current version of the budget bill he said will go to addressing the core issues of homelessness.

George Eklund with the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville said the new funding is a “down payment” necessary to keep the issue from getting worse, but would not reverse decades of underinvestment.

“What we have is a compounding issue because of rising rents and because of our lack of affordable housing,” Eklund said. “We're having families living in cars; we have young people that are couch surfing or sleeping in the library.”

The bill’s sponsors say the goal is to get people into treatment. They pointed to Kentucky’s numerous substance abuse disorder treatment options and said police officers can direc people to those resources instead of charging someone with a crime.

“We're trying to do both treatment and put violent people away for a long long time,” said co-sponsor GOP House Majority Whip Jason Nemes from Middletown.

In Westerfield’s version of the bill, law enforcement officers would be required to refer people to treatment or alternative services before charging them with a crime. Many communities in Kentucky don’t have a single homeless shelter and in larger cities, those shelters are frequently at capacity and can't accept any more people. Westerfield’s amendment was not included in the version of the bill that passed Thursday.

But homeless advocates say many people who don’t have stable housing are addicted or in need of a treatment bed. Many are pushed out by rising rent and a lack of affordable housing, Eklund said . And even if people make use of a treatment bed, after 28 days they are back in the streets.

Schickel, the GOP rep. from Union, said as he explained his yes vote that he was touched by the testimony from people concerned about the street camping ban. But he remained firm that the ban on street camping is a necessary step.

“I have people in my immediate family who’ve experienced this. And we just quite simply see it from a different point of view," he said.

Does Kentucky have a “crime problem”?

The Fraternal Order of Police vice president Ryan Straw testified in favor of the bill, saying he thinks it is “foolish” to say there isn’t a crime problem in Kentucky.

“The legislature has heard our cries for help, that crime is out of control,” Straw said. “At some point we have to acknowledge that problem.”

Several legislators pointed to the dramatic spike in crime that occurred in 2021. Nemes said violent crime is “spiraling out of control” in Kentucky, comparing the state's violent crime rates to a decade ago.

However, Kentucky’s violent crime rate is 44% lower than the national average. And though it did spike during the pandemic, it also significantly declined in 2021 and 2022, according to Federal Bureau of Investigations data.

Homicide-specific data shows a different story, with the homicide rate higher than its been since 1995. However, nothing in HB5 increases penalties on homicide specifically, besides intentionally killing an emergency responder, which is made a capital offense in the bill.

Thomas with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy said she does not believe Kentucky needs to address a crime spike that is already subsiding.

In Kentucky in particular, the downward trend now is pretty pronounced,” Thomas said. “But we aren't hearing about that. We're just hearing about what happened back [during the COVID spike] in the testimony.”

The provisions of HB 5

Democrats have described HB 5 as “several bills rolled into one.” It is an extensive piece of legislation that is 78 pages long and includes 56 sections. See below for a summary of many of the bill's components.

  • Three strikes law requiring anyone who commits three violent felony offenses (under the bill’s extended definition of “violent”) to receive death penalty or life in prison.
  • Any person who used a gun to commit a crime and has a felony conviction, knew the gun was stolen or is on parole for a felony conviction, must serve out their full sentence without parole.
  • Creates a carjacking statute, but prohibits stacking with similar crimes that are currently used to charge carjackers.
  • Makes court require parent attendance at child court proceedings. If they miss, parents can be charged up to $500 fines or 40 hours of community service. The court must accommodate to help that parent attend, like remote hearings.
  • 2nd degree manslaughter if a person knowingly distributes fentanyl, causing a fatal overdose. Selling with the same deadly result is 1st degree manslaughter. There is a Good Samaritan exception.
  • Class D felony for $500 damage to "residential rental property" (down from $1000). Courts can lower to Class B misdemeanor (on 1st offense, Class A after that) with community service or restitution.
  • Instead of being sold at auction, a person can buy a gun used in a homicide for the sake of destroying it.
  • Ban on "unlawful camping,” making it a Class B misdemeanor for every offense after the first for sleeping on public streets in undesignated areas.
  • Allows "physical force" to prevent unlawful camping on owner's property when the individual is told to leave and the individual "used force or threatened to use force" in response.
  • Would not allow a charitable bail fund to furnish more than $5,000 for bail or bail out anyone accused of domestic or dating violence or a violent offender or who has previously received bail from a fund, whether they were found guilty of that crime or not.
  • If a person intentionally "causes the death of a first responder," it's death or life imprisonment. That now includes personnel of private fire & EMS nonprofits, along with public ones.
  • If a person intentionally "causes the death of a first responder," a required sentence of death or life imprisonment. That includes fire & EMS personnel.
  • Shopkeeper's privilege to provide criminal and civil immunity for using "reasonable amount of force" to detain people they think shoplifted. New addition expressly prohibits deadly force solely to protect property.
  • Expansion of the state’s violent offender statute to include all attempted violent crimes. It also adds 1st degree burglary, 2nd robbery, 1st arson, strangulation, carjacking, promoting contraband, and 1st wanton endangerment that includes shooting a gun. This requires people serve 85% of their sentence.
  • Lowers threshold for evidence of "intent to commit theft" if you fail to return rental property within four days instead of 10.
  • 1st degree fleeing police is raised to a Class C felony and 2nd degree raised from misdemeanor to Class D felony. The person must serve 50% or more of their sentence. It also creates a 3rd degree that would be a Class A misdemeanor.
  • Creates "local juvenile restorative justice advisory committee" and allows parole board to require participation in specific violence prevention programs.

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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