Advertisement

GOP-backed bill proposing harsher sentences to combat crime sent to Kentucky's governor

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Kentucky wrapped up work Thursday on a sweeping criminal justice bill that would deliver harsher sentences to combat crime. Opponents making a last stand before final passage warned the measure would carry a hefty price tag with no assurances that a tougher approach will lower crime.

The House voted 75-23 after another long debate to send the measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The massive legislation is a priority for many in the GOP supermajority legislature.

The governor has signaled he likes aspects of the sprawling bill but dislikes other sections, including provisions to create the crime of unlawful camping, which critics say would criminalize homelessness.

“It's hard to comment on a bill that tries to do this many things,” Beshear said recently. “I think it properly should have been split into different bills.”

House Bill 5 — one of the most contentious of the legislative session — would make a multitude of changes to the state’s criminal code, enhancing many current penalties and creating new offenses.

Supporters portrayed the bill as a necessary policy shift that would do more to hold criminals accountable and to make communities safer.

“If you get convicted of a violent crime, you’re going to the big house and you’re going for a long time,” Republican Rep. Jason Nemes said in defending the bill against blistering criticism from Democrats.

One prominent feature would create a “three-strikes” penalty that would lock up felons for the rest of their lives after committing a third violent offense.

Opponents said the measure failed to delve into the root causes of crime and warned of potential skyrocketing costs by putting more people behind bars for longer sentences.

“To increase the penalties may make us on paper look like we feel safer. I do not know that it will make us actually be more safe,” said Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski.

To bolster public safety, she suggested such alternatives as temporarily taking guns away from people experiencing mental health crises, better protecting domestic violence victims and improving access to housing — things not addressed by the legislation. Other critics said more effective ways to combat crime would be to raise the minimum wage and spend more on rehabilitative services.

The bill's supporters focused mostly on urban crime in pushing for tougher policies. A law enforcement report released last year showed that overall serious crime rates fell across Kentucky in 2022, with declines in reports of homicides, robberies and drug offenses.

Opponents said the prospect of more criminal offenders serving longer sentences will saddle the Bluegrass State with significantly higher corrections costs and put more strain on overcrowded jails.

The fiscal note attached to the bill said the overall financial impact was “indeterminable” but would likely lead to a “significant increase in expenditures primarily due to increased incarceration costs.”

The measure would add to the list of violent crimes that require offenders to serve most of their sentences before becoming eligible for release.

Another key section aims to combat the prevalence of fentanyl by creating harsher penalties when its distribution results in fatal overdoses. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid seen as a key factor in the state’s high death toll from drug overdoses.

The section stirring some of the most heated debate would create an “unlawful camping” offense applied to the homeless. It means people could be arrested for sleeping or setting up camp in public spaces — whether on streets, sidewalks, under bridges or in front of businesses or public buildings. A first offense would be treated as a violation, with subsequent offenses designated as a misdemeanor. People could sleep in vehicles in public for up to 12 hours without being charged with unlawful camping.

Several thousand people experience homelessness in Kentucky on a given night, advocates say.

The bill would create a standalone carjacking law with enhanced penalties. Another provision would offer workers and business owners criminal immunity in cases where they use a “reasonable amount of force” to prevent theft or protect themselves and their stores.

The bill's lead sponsor is Republican Rep. Jared Bauman and the measure drew dozens of cosponsors.