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The Kentucky General Assembly passes the Safer Ky. Act

Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni speaks against House Bill 5, dubbed the Safer Kentucky Act, as Rep. Jared Bauman, a Louisville Republican, listens in floor debate Thursday.
Sylvia Goodman
/
LPM
Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni speaks against House Bill 5, dubbed the Safer Kentucky Act, as Rep. Jared Bauman, a Louisville Republican, listens in floor debate Thursday.

Democrats made their final impassioned pleas against the tough-on-crime legislation as it made final passage through the Kentucky General Assembly, until Republicans moved to limit debate.

The Safer Kentucky Act passed the House on a 75-23 vote. A few Republicans voted against it as did nearly every House Democrat. It now moves to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who will have 10 days to either sign, veto or allow it to become law without his signature.

The far-reaching tough-on-crime bill would likely lead to more Kentuckians in jails or prisons for longer. The 78-page legislation would also increase fines and could cost the state more than a billion dollars over the next decade, according to some estimates, although the bill’s sponsors contend the cost of the bill cannot be calculated.

From the House floor Thursday, Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts from Newport said she believes the bill to be “possibly the very worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in my entire time here.”

GOP Co-sponsor Middletown Republican Rep. Jason Nemes said the primary purpose of the bill is to “get [violent offenders] off our streets, so they don't hurt us.”

After Roberts asked if any of the ardent debate on the legislation had swayed proponents’ minds on the numerous provisions, co-sponsor Nemes said “not one iota.”

“We also believe that when you commit crime and violence against our people, we are going to protect the rest of us against you,” Nemes said, referencing the bill’s three strikes law for violent felony offenders and expansion of the definition of a violent crime.

After over an hour of questions and debate on the sweeping piece of legislation, which touches on nearly every corner of the criminal justice system, GOP Floor Leader Rep. Steven Rudy from Paducah moved to limit debate on the bill. The motion was successful on largely party lines, and after that point, only 15 minutes were allotted to each side of the issue.

GOP Floor Leader Rep. Steven Rudy from Paducah confers with Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade from Stanford over the House rules as Rudy prepares to limit floor debate on House Bill 5, a sweeping tough-on-crime bill.
Sylvia Goodman
/
LPM
GOP Floor Leader Rep. Steven Rudy from Paducah confers with Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade from Stanford over the House rules as Rudy prepares to limit floor debate on House Bill 5, a sweeping tough-on-crime bill.

Lexington Democrat Rep. Adrielle Camuel said she believed the maneuver “silences the voices of our citizens.”

“When debate is limited and voices are silenced, we fail in our duties to craft good, well thought-out laws. I'm disappointed in this maneuver,” Camuel said.

Nemes said he believed there had been sufficient debate before prior votes on the bill.

While portions of the bill like the three strikes provision deal directly with violent crime, others do not. Read here for a list of the bill’s provisions.

One of the most contentious portions of the bill is a ban on street camping, which many advocates and lawmakers say would effectively make being unhoused a crime.

Rep. Josie Raymond, a Democrat from Louisville, asked the bill’s lead sponsor, Louisville Republican Rep. Jared Bauman, what he expects homeless people to do when shelters are full — as they frequently are in Louisville.

“Law enforcement officers would help that person in any and every way possible to find shelter to the point where law enforcement officers in our state have paid for hotel rooms for homeless individuals,” Bauman said.

Bauman then clarified he does not believe police officers should have to pay out of pocket to address the problem of a lack of shelter beds in the state.

The bill will affect Kentuckians in every county. Rural homeless advocates have noted that some counties in Kentucky don’t even have a shelter.

Street camping is not the only nonviolent activity included in the bill. It would also make $500 damage to "residential rental property" a Class D felony, down from $1,000. It gives shopkeepers criminal and civil immunity for using a "reasonable amount of force" to detain people they think shoplifted.

It also lowers the threshold for evidence of "intent to commit theft" if you fail to return rental property within four days instead of 10. It creates fines or community service for parents who fail to attend their child’s court proceeding.

Several opponents of the legislation also pointed to Kentucky Public Radio reporting, in which several researchers cited in support of the bill cast doubt on its provisions. Other cited research appeared to have little to nothing to do with the legislation.

Bauman said on the floor that there’s a lot more evidence he and co-sponsors used. KPR analyzed the list of research provided by Bauman’s office after multiple requests in producing its reporting. In requests for comment, KPR explicitly asked Bauman if he relied on any other research besides the list he initially provided. Bauman never responded and would not answer questions after the Thursday floor debate.

“The list that I read on the floor was simply from one page of over a thousand that we had used,” Bauman said. “But more than that, we worked with people that live on the front lines of this issue every single day… and really weighed those firsthand experiences that are happening on the ground today a little bit higher than some of the words on the paper or numbers on the paper.”

Some advocates have also questioned if violent crime is truly on the rise in Kentucky, as the bill’s sponsors have suggested. While crime spiked significantly in the state and around the country during the pandemic, those numbers have already begun decreasing without state-wide intervention, according to Federal Bureau of Investigations data.

Rep. Chad Aull, a Democrat from Lexington, said the bill, which requires longer sentences and decreases parole eligibility on a number of crimes, removes judicial discretion in a dangerous way.

“We're not getting to the root cause here, folks, we're not solving the problem,” Aull said. “[It] essentially removed the discretion of the judicial system. We elect judges to decide; that’s their job.”

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-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.