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Louisville Republicans release sweeping public safety bill

Rep. Jared Bauman, a Republican from Louisville, discusses his bill, the Safer Kentucky Act, at an Interim Judiciary Committee Meeting in Frankfort on Friday.
Rep. Jared Bauman, a Republican from Louisville, discusses his bill, the Safer Kentucky Act, at an Interim Judiciary Committee Meeting in Frankfort on Friday.

Louisville-area Republicans presented a draft of omnibus public safety legislation at a committee meeting Friday. Dubbed the Safer Kentucky Act, the 68-page bill draft includes a litany of expanded criminal charges, a statewide ban on street camping and a three strikes law.

Republicans backing the proposal see it as a reaction to perceived rising crime in the state while opponents at the hearing questioned whether increased penalties will have the intended effect.

“The simple truth is that the criminal element has become an all too normal part of our world today,” said Rep. Jared Bauman of Louisville.

Bauman is a first-term Republican sponsoring the bill. He pointed to increases in carjacking, high rates of retail-theft and overdose deaths. Bauman believes a majority of Kentuckians do not subscribe to what he says is the state’s current “soft-on-crime” approach, which treats “law enforcement harshly and lets criminals off with leniency,” he said.

One major change to Kentucky state law would be the creation of a three strikes law, which requires a person be sentenced to life without probation and parole after committing their third violent felony.

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes of Middletown said he recognizes other states' versions of three strikes laws have been ineffective, but the focus on violent felonies makes this one different.

“We're recognizing that there are very few people who commit violent crime. But the people who do commit violent crime will do it over and over again,” Nemes said. “We want to … hold them accountable, and give them a bunch of treatment. But if you do it a series of three times, we think it is sufficient. Number two may be better.”

Lawmakers first announced the bill in September, but did not publicly provide a draft of it until the Friday hearing. It originally included a wiretapping statute, which was removed in this copy, but will likely be introduced as a separate piece of legislation during the session.

The bill would create a new Class B felony for carjacking. It increases the penalty for fentanyl trafficking that results in an overdose death, for smuggling contraband into a detention facility, for fleeing or evading the police, for attempted murder and other existing crimes.

The legislation would ban all street camping and prohibit the use of state money toward Housing First initiatives, which provide a person housing before enforcing other behavioral requirements. It makes repeated street camping a misdemeanor offense.

It puts new restrictions on charitable bail organizations. It would not allow bail funds to provide $5,000 or more towards a person’s bail nor allow a bail fund to help anyone who is accused of a violent offense or being held under a civil court order.

Leaders of bail fund organizations questioned why a person who is unable to pay a $5,000 bail and gain release is inherently more dangerous than someone wealthy enough to pay that fee for allegedly committing the same crime.

Some legislators questioned the efficacy of layering more charges and penalties to fight crime. Rep. Lindsey Burke, a Democrat from Lexington, cited a 2015 study from the Prison Policy Institute, which found Kentucky has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the world, if each U.S. state were counted as its own country.

“If putting people in prison was going to solve our problem, it would have already,” Burke said at the Friday meeting. “It’s proven out by the justice statistics that’s not the case.”

Burke also raised concerns the proposed legislation “stratifies the rich and the poor.”

Bauman said he does not have an estimate for the cost of the proposal, but that it would be worthwhile at any cost. It would likely increase the number of people put in jails and prisons and the length of time they remain there.

Here is a condensed list of the proposal’s elements:

  • Create a “Three Strikes Law” for persistent violent felony offenders
  • Increase charges and penalties for fentanyl delivery causing an overdose
  • Increase the felony class for smuggling contraband into a jail or prison
  • Make fleeing or evading the police to Class C felony
  • Add attempted murder as a violent offense, increase minimum percent of sentence they must serve before parole
  • Fine parents who fail to a attend their child’s court hearing up to $500 and 40 hours of community service
  • Require the Transportation Cabinet to provide a driver’s license or ID card to people who committed felonies upon release
  • Limit the amount a charitable bail organization can furnish
  • Give shopkeepers civil and criminal immunity for using “reasonable” force to detain shoplifters
  • Create a Class B felony for carjacking
  • Make $500 of damage to a residential rental property a felony offense, lowered from $1,000. Allows charges to to be lower if defendant reimburses or repairs damage before trial
  • Prevent a person from getting released early if they use illegally possessed guns during that crime
  • Remove the requirement that people have a criminal history in order to be involuntarily confined for mental health issues
  • Allow people to bid for confiscated murder weapons at state police auctions, specifying police will destroy them
  • Allow death penalty for murder of a first responder, like firefighters or EMS
  • Ban street camping and allow local governments to designate outdoor space
  • Prohibit the use of state funds on housing first initiatives
  • Require a two-thirds vote of the full parole board to approve parole
  • Require the charges be increased a level if an adult engages in a criminal conspiracy with a minor
  • Increase felony level for drive-by-shooters
  • Broaden the terroristic threatening statute to include workplaces
  • Require school employees to tell police if they have knowledge of a plan of violence or if a student brings a gun to school
  • Add harassing communication to the witness intimidation statute
  • Require people granted parole participate group violence intervention programs
  • Make repeated violations of orders of protection a felony
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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