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The Safer Kentucky Act is close to becoming law

Westerfield on the Senate Floor.
Sylvia Goodman
GOP Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill on the Senate floor Friday, March 15, 2024

A sweeping GOP anti-crime bill passed the Senate Friday despite some lawmakers’ concerns the bill lacks an evidence-based approach.

The legislation, which proponents call the Safer Kentucky Act, would increase criminal penalties and fines on a number of crimes. Among its many provisions, the bill would ban unlawful camping, expand the definition of a violent crime and allow shopkeepers to use force to prevent shoplifting.

Former police officer and jailer Sen. John Schickel from Union said he believes Kentucky needs to make drastic changes.

“When crime is being committed, and no one is being held accountable, where is the justice in our community?” said Schickel, who is carrying the legislation through the Senate.

If passed into law, the Safer Kentucky Act would likely further burden Kentucky’s already crowded prisons and jails. It could increase costs by an estimated billion dollars over the next decade, and it would pass into law at a time when violent crime has been declining across the state.

The Senate passed House Bill 5 on a 26 to 9 vote, with two Republicans breaking rank to vote against the measure. The House, which previously passed the measure, will now consider the changes.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill was one of the Republicans to vote against the measure. He’s a former prosecutor and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee.

Westerfield is not running for reelection. Early Friday morning, the Senate honored him with a resolution. Many Republican leaders spoke on his integrity, his courage, and his criminal justice work. But they also left Westerfield out of the yearlong discussions on the tough on crime legislation, he said Friday.

Westerfield has attempted numerous times to amend the bill, in small and big ways. Nearly all have failed.

He went through some of his attempts on the Senate floor Friday — in the bill’s ban on “unlawful camping,” he tried to add a requirement that police provide a list of resources before citing a person charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which is prescribed for repeated offenses or those who don’t immediately comply with a request to disperse.

Westerfield said he had many concerns with the legislation, including its likely price tag, its broad reach and what he described as a lack of data to support it.

“Long after I’m gone we’re going to be paying for it, literally and figuratively,” Westerfield said.

Republicans and Democrats also sparred over whether the bill is based on evidence and will achieve its intended effect.

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. Many of the sources had little to do with the measures in the bill.

Schickel, with the Senate GOP, said there is data, but that “you can interpret data any way you want to.” He said the bill is also based largely on conversations with stakeholders and community members.

“I like to use the term ‘value-driven decision,’” Schickel said. “So what is our value when we're making this decision? And our value in this law is number one, justice, and number two, public safety.”

Schickel also said there is “disagreement” over whether Kentucky is experiencing a crime wave.

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. Kentucky’s homicide rate is still high for the state, but FBI data shows it declined significantly in 2022.

GOP Sen. Michael Nemes from Shepherdsville said his constituents want the legislature to act now to address crime, regardless of evidence.

“I don't care about the data. I don't,” Nemes said. “Crime is too high in Kentucky. It needs to be addressed. Citizens are afraid and they want something done … They want their children to feel safe.”

Republican Floor Leader Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown and Senate President Robert Stivers from Manchester tell Louisville Democratic Sen. Karen Berg they believe she broke the chambers' rules of decorum when she explained her vote.
Sylvia Goodman
Republican Floor Leader Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown and Senate President Robert Stivers from Manchester tell Louisville Democratic Sen. Karen Burg they believe she broke the chambers' rules of decorum when she explained her vote.

Democratic Sen. David Yates of Louisville said there were some elements of the bill he could stand behind.

Democrats have supported an element designed to reduce recidivism among youth offenders and another that would allow parole boards to require people participate in violence prevention programs. But he said he believes the bad outweighs the good.

“[My grandfather] would always tell me that if I make you a turkey sandwich, you put the bread on it, put the tomato on it, put the lettuce on it and turkey on it. But put just a little bit of manure on it, you’re not gonna eat it,” Yates said. “We got a lot of manure in this.”

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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