Three weeks into the 2024 General Assembly session, a sweeping anti-crime measure is already generating fierce debate over its potential impacts.
Sponsors say House Bill 5, known as the Safer Kentucky Act, will promote public security and protection in the commonwealth at a time when violent crime is a growing concern for many Kentuckians. But opponents fear the legislation could actually lead to more violence, make homelessness a crime, and tax an already overburdened criminal justice system in the state.
The 72-page bill addresses a range of criminal conduct:
• It institutes a three-strikes provision that would require a life sentence in prison without the possibility of probation or parole for those convicted of three violent felonies.
• Toughens punishment for knowingly selling drugs laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl that lead to an overdose death.
• Creates a criminal statute on carjacking and makes it a Class B felony.
• Restricts charitable bail organizations from providing bail amounts of more than $5,000 or providing bail of any amount for those charged with violent crimes.
• Creates a new offense of “unlawful camping” to make it illegal to sleep outside or in cars in public areas.
• Enhances penalties for drive-by shootings, attempted murder, vandalism, fleeing or evading police. intentional murder of a first responder, and adults who use children to commit a crime.
• Gives business owners greater latitude to use reasonable force to prevent suspected shoplifters from escaping.
State Rep. Jared Bauman (R-Louisville), who is primary sponsor of HB 5, says he and his GOP colleagues spent nine months crafting the legislation with bipartisan input. He contends that tackling crime is critical to generating prosperity in the commonwealth.
“It is the foundation on which we will build a thriving economy,” says Bauman. “It is the foundation on which we will support the Kentucky family, achieve success in education, and generally achieve a high quality of life in our state.”
Even though some communities have experienced recent spikes in criminal activity, Rep. Keturah Herron, a Louisville Democrat, says violent crime in the United States has decreased over the past decade. Instead of creating more crimes and tougher penalties, she argues state lawmakers should address the root causes of crime, including economic insecurity and poor education, and fix existing flaws in the criminal justice system.
“I definitely think that the state legislature has a huge responsibility to make sure that we’re making everyone safe, Herron says. “I don’t believe that this is a piece of legislation that is going to make us safe.”
Reducing Crime by Tackling Homelessness
An increase in unhoused individuals in Metro Louisville has led to more crime and hurt business and tourism in the city, according to Bauman. He says research indicates that a homeless person is 500 times more likely to commit a crime than someone with stable housing. Yet he says lawmakers are sympathetic to the plight of the unhoused.
“Being homeless or being unsheltered is not a crime in the state of Kentucky today,” says Bauman. “Being homeless or being unsheltered will not be a crime after we pass House Bill 5.”
Unlawful camping would become a Class B misdemeanor on the second and subsequent offenses though. Homeless individuals could be fined up to $250 and jailed for up to 90 days.
“How does it help them to subject them to arrest and to fines that we know they can’t pay?” says Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky.
Under the measure, private property owners would have greater leeway to use force to remove a vagrant who is trespassing on their land or at their place of business.
George Eklund from Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville says the homeless provisions in the legislation are cruel and unnecessary. He says existing laws already allow for someone to be charged with loitering, menacing, or blocking public passageways.
“We have the tools already on the books,” Eklund says. “I don’t see the need to have an additional charge laid on them that is going to create a new barrier for us to move people into housing.”
In Metro Louisville alone, about 1,600 people can be homeless on any given night, according to Eklund. He says that includes people fleeing domestic violence situations, children, and military veterans as well as individuals battling addiction or severe mental illness. Because the problem is so large and diverse, and because so few shelter beds are available, Eklund contends a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.
HB 5 does say local government can designate specific areas for temporary camping by homeless people, which should include potable water and toilet facilities. Co-sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Middletown) says the goal is to get the unhoused the services or treatment that they need to get back on their feet. But for some people, he argues, that will require the threat of a criminal charge or fine to do achieve that.
“I don’t think this is cruel, I think this is humane,” says Nemes. “What is cruel is allowing all these people, especially the young kids... to camp out all over the community.”
But incentivizing treatment for substance abuse or mental illness does not guarantee an unhoused person can actually get it, according to Njuguna. He says it’s great that Kentucky has so many treatment beds – more per capita than any state in the nation – but he also says accessing them depends on whether facilities in the area have open beds, whether people have transportation to get there, and whether the facility will take Medicaid or your insurance coverage. Even if those obstacles can be overcome, Njuguna says success still depends on the support network available to an individual once they leave treatment.
Herron says she fears the homeless provisions in HB 5 will be exacerbated by House Bill 18, a proposal that would allow landlords to decline to rent to low-income individuals who pay with Section 8 vouchers or other federal housing assistance.
Fentanyl Provision and Other Components of the Legislation
Opponents of HB 5 also have concerns about the provision that would make it a felony to knowingly sell an illicit drug laced with fentanyl that leads to a fatal overdose. Njuguna, who is recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, says he fears people who share their own drugs with someone else and don’t specifically know they may contain fentanyl will face felony charges. He contends solely focusing on fentanyl without more treatment options won’t fix the problems of addiction in the commonwealth.
Nemes says this provision is meant to punish dealers and traffickers seeking financial gain from the sale of a drug they know contains fentanyl, not an individual user who does not know about the presence of fentanyl in the drug they are sharing with a fellow user. He also says it does not conflict with the state’s Good Samaritan law, which shields people who provide emergency assistance to those in need from liability.
From the perspective of law enforcement, Ryan Straw, vice president and chair of government affairs of the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police, says police officers risk a lethal fentanyl exposure by simply assisting someone experiencing an overdose.
“We want to get you the help, but this stuff is so dangerous,” says Straw. “You’re asking us to be compassionate about something that could kill us.”
Straw also says policemen and women go out of their way to help people, even paying out of their own pockets to get someone some food or a room for the night. He says law enforcement personnel are eager for more tools to address any criminal activity, whether that’s illegal drugs, homelessness, or violent crimes.
“Our cops are overwhelmed, we need help, and this bill helps,” says Straw. “We support this bill completely.”
HB 5 also calls for an evaluation of reentry programs so that funding can be directed to initiatives that successfully help people return to productive lives after incarceration. Njuguna applauds another provision that would provide personal identification cards to people as they leave county jails, which could help a former offender secure housing or employment. But Njuguna says the emphasis on tougher punishments and more jail time will not result in less crime. He says if that were the case, there would be no need for a Safer Kentucky Act given all the anti-crime laws already on the books.
“Everybody wants a safe Kentucky and a prosperous Kentucky but... you can’t incarcerate your way to prosperity,” says Njuguna. “We know that enhanced penalties, new crimes do not make us safer, they don’t deter crime... Let’s talk about the things that truly make us safe, which is investing in people and in communities.”
Nemes says corrections is only about 5 percent of the state budget and that lawmakers spend far more public employee pensions, Medicaid, and other public services. He the legislation will continue to evolve as it moves through the House and Senate. The Republican says state government must not fail to protect Kentuckians from dangerous criminals.
“We’re not trying to incarcerate ourselves out of this,” Nemes says. But he adds, “If they keep committing violations of the law, especially violent violations of the law, we have to do something to get them off the streets, out of our neighborhoods to protect our people.”