Life is nowhere near as simple as dehumanizing House Bill 5 makes it out to be

Kentucky Lantern


House Bill 5 — what some call the Safer Kentucky Act, but what I refer to as the Dehumanization Act — has been approved by both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly and will almost certainly become law.

HB 5 takes an outdated, disproven, tough-on-crime approach to public safety by delivering harsher punishments, mandating longer sentences, making it impossible for houseless people to find a place to sleep, and many other provisions that will have far reaching consequences for everyday people — not just those who lawmakers consider “less than.” 

I grew up in Covington, right on the border of Kentucky and Ohio. My grandma used to say, “If you get in trouble, don’t get in trouble in Kentucky.” She knew from a lifetime of experience that Kentucky laws are already incredibly harsh compared to other states, and she’s right. Kentucky incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other democracy on earth, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. 

Repeated pleas from experts within the corrections system for additional resources to ensure the safety of staff, juveniles, and adults in the system have been consistently ignored by legislators, and HB 5 exacerbates our state’s already overcrowded and unsafe jails and prisons. On any given day there are over 21,000 Kentuckians in jail, nearly half of whom have not been convicted of any crime but remain incarcerated only because they cannot afford to post bail. 

What does HB 5 do to address the state’s overloaded and crumbling prison system, or the inequitable cash bail system? Nothing. In fact, HB 5 will make it harder to post bail by preventing charitable bail organizations from furnishing bail of $5,000 or more. 

HB 5 makes me think of friends and family from City Heights public housing, also known as “The Hill,” in Covington’s Latonia neighborhood. No one has addressed the systemic neglect at City Heights, and the complex is set to be demolished, displacing its residents because the units are no longer safe. 

What does HB 5 offer City Heights residents with nowhere to go? Nothing. 

An especially disgusting part of HB 5 is the “Shopkeeper’s Privilege” provision, which grants store owners the authority to use any level of “reasonable” force they deem “necessary” to apprehend suspected shoplifters. Last summer a cashier spoke to me about a group of kids wearing hoodies in their store: “I don’t know why they dress like that, it makes them look suspicious.” Even though they were in line to make purchases, these kids were deemed potentially dangerous. HB 5 empowers people like this cashier to take drastic actions against innocent individuals — including children — without any legal recourse. Non-native English speakers and those with disabilities or speech impairments may also struggle to communicate effectively in these situations. 

How does state-sanctioned violence make us safer? What does HB 5 do to protect these vulnerable community members? Once again — nothing.

My sister works with foster and displaced youth. Recently, a child came into her salon who was sleeping outside in an alley with their siblings — a situation that, under HB 5, is illegal and leaves them subject to arrest. 

What does HB 5 do to help homeless children who had to leave their homes because of abuse or neglect, and have no choice but to camp out on the streets? You guessed it: nothing.

And finally, HB 5 makes me think of women like me, who have had to flee domestic situations and found themselves on the precipice of homelessness. 

What does HB 5 do to make that situation any easier for people fleeing violence in their own homes? Nothing! It only criminalizes them for being without a safe place to lay their heads. 

People’s response to stories like these is usually something like, “well then don’t get in trouble,” or “make better choices.” But life is nowhere near as simple as bills like HB 5 make it out to be. 

This is a sad bill. The commonwealth has $1 billion to spend on this, but not to better fund public schools? To expand housing and SNAP benefits? To provide better economic opportunities to struggling communities?   

Punishing people for the circumstances these same legislators create and perpetuate isn’t justice and will do nothing to solve Kentucky’s problems. Gov. Andy Beshear should veto HB 5.

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