The 2024 Kentucky General Assembly Was the Most Regressive for Criminal Legal System Policies in Recent Memory

Republished from Kentucky Center for Economic Policy

More than any legislative session in recent memory, the 2024 Kentucky General Assembly doubled down on harmful policies that will result in longer sentences, Kentuckians locked up for being poor, additional state and local dollars spent on incarceration, jail crowding, and more children prosecuted as adults.  Rather than increasing public safety — at a time when violent crime in Kentucky is falling and property crime rates are the lowest in the region — these new criminal laws will cause profound harm across the state in the months, years and decades to come.  

State lawmakers also missed several opportunities to mitigate harm in the juvenile system and modestly improve reentry and invest in services that support people.  

Omnibus crime bill increases numerous penalties, creates new crimes  

Over the governor’s veto, the legislature passed House Bill (HB) 5, a 78-page bill packed with regressive, tried-and-failed criminal policies. Among many policy changes, the final version of HB 5:  

  • Drastically expands the “violent offender statute” to include six new offenses, meaning more people will have to serve longer sentences in prison before being eligible for release. 
  • Creates a “three strikes” law that applies to any person who has been convicted of two previous felonies that qualify them as a “violent offender” under state law. If they are later convicted of a third offense included in the violent offender statute, they must receive a sentence of life without parole, or death (if the third offense is eligible for the death penalty).  
  • Criminalizes “street camping,” which limits where unhoused Kentuckians can sleep, or be present with their belongings, in public places, putting them at risk of jail time and/or fines.  
  • Implements a “drug-induced homicide” law, meaning if someone shares, sells, or distributes fentanyl to someone who then dies because of their consumption of the substance, that person can be charged with manslaughter. Under previous law, such charges were only possible when police could prove money was exchanged.  
  • Significantly restricts the operation of charitable bail organizations to limit how much money they can post, which offenses they can post bail for and information they must publicly report.  
  • Requires that someone who uses a firearm during a crime be ineligible for any form of early release prior to the completion of their sentence if the person is a convicted felon, is on any form of supervised release after conviction of a violent felony or knew (or should have known) the firearm was stolen. 
  • Expands the death penalty.  

While the bill’s proponents cite the need for safer communities as the motivation for these policies, decades of research show the proposals in the bill will not make us safer. Longer sentences do not deter violent crime or make communities safer; drug-induced homicide laws have proven ineffective and dangerous in other states; and criminalizing homelessness but not investing in affordable housing will not solve the housing crisis.  

HB 5 will also be incredibly expensive for Kentucky, with a conservative estimate showing select portions of the bill will cost more than $1 billion over the next decade. Already-struggling counties will be hit particularly hard by increased costs as more Kentuckians are detained pretrial in chronically crowded rural jails. 

In addition to HB5, the legislature passed several other bills that increase criminal penalties such as HB 3, HB 194, HB 207, HB 258, and HB 833.  

Changes made to juvenile system will make it easier to prosecute children in adult court, while needed improvements did not pass 

The General Assembly also made changes to the juvenile system that will harm more kids, reversing a positive policy change enacted just three years ago. Senate Bill (SB) 20 makes changes to the process by which a child charged with a crime can be prosecuted as an adult. Children face harsher consequences in the adult system, which research has shown to be harmful, both to the children and to the greater community 

Currently, before a child is moved to adult court, following a motion to transfer by the county attorney, a judge considers a list of factors about the child, their situation, and the individual case, to decide if the case belongs in adult or juvenile court. Under SB 20, judicial discretion is removed, and if the county attorney asks to transfer the case to adult court, the case must be transferred if the child is 15 years or older, charged with an A, B or C felony, and is alleged to have used a gun in the commission of the offense.    

For a child prosecuted under these circumstances who has not been probated or paroled before reaching the age of 18, the bill requires they be ineligible for early release on probation when they are resentenced at age 18, even if a judge believes that is best.  

The proponents of SB 20 cited a trend of leniency in cases where kids were charged with violent offenses with firearms as the reason for bringing this bill. However, under existing law, a child charged with such offenses could already be moved to adult court if the judge believed it was appropriate. Instead, SB 20 removes important discretion from judges, elected by the people to consider each case fully and make the best decision based on all the information presented to them.  

The research about prosecuting children as adults is clear: it is harmful to the child and the greater community. Not only are harsher penalties not a deterrent to crime, but children prosecuted in adult court become more likely to commit crimes as adults, have stunted economic mobility, and Black children are disproportionately impacted.  

In addition to this regressive change in juvenile transfer, lawmakers failed to pass SB 242, which included the delay of a provision from last year’s HB 3, which requires that beginning in July 2024, any child charged with a “violent” offense be held up to 48-hours in detention while awaiting a hearing in front of a judge. The reason for this delay was logistical – the lack of progress made in retrofitting the Louisville facility which would make the mandatory hold more challenging, requiring law enforcement to travel long distances to detain children from in and around Jefferson County. The bill also included the construction of a new facility specifically for kids who have severe mental health and behavioral issues.  

Without a further delayed implementation of the mandatory hold, and no facility for kids with unique needs, the problems we have seen in our juvenile detention system are unlikely to improve.  

Legislature missed opportunities to improve reentry  

In addition to passing legislation that will increase incarceration, state lawmakers failed to pass several bills and invest in programs that would have supported successful reentry for Kentuckians involved with the criminal legal system. Reentry support is essential, with 12,821 Kentuckians returning home from prison in 2022 alone, and at least 95% of Kentuckians in prison expected to return to our communities one day.  

Proposals to automate expungement process, remove barriers did not advance  

Companion bills (HB 569 and SB 218) that would have automated the expungement process for already-eligible Kentuckians did not advance this session. HB 569 was scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee but was pulled from the agenda before any testimony could be offered.   

Under current law, when someone is eligible for expungement they must take action, which involves filing paperwork with the proper court, attending court, and paying filing fees. This process can be burdensome, expensive, and confusing. As a result of these barriers, nearly 572,000 Kentuckians who are eligible for expungement have not taken advantage of the opportunity. HB 569 and SB 218 proposed a process by which eligible offenses would be automatically expunged, at no cost to the individual.  

Because the stigma of a criminal record can follow an individual long after their sentence is served, eliminating these barriers to expungement would help more people obtain quality employment, and in some instances, access housing assistance and educational opportunities. People who are employed and active in their communities have lower recidivism rates and better health outcomes.  

Chance to improve occupational licensure process did not pass  

Aside from expungement, other barriers can exist for those who are entering the work force after interaction with the criminal legal system. HB 142 would have improved the occupational licensure process for Kentuckians with criminal histories, but never received a committee hearing in the Senate, after passing the House 95-1. 

The bill would have required hiring and licensing authorities to allow people to apply before spending time, energy and money on training. This would allow someone to know, in advance, if their criminal history poses a barrier to becoming licensed.  

The bill also included language to allow for a hearing where the person can provide more information and make a case as to why they should be granted a license or hiring opportunity despite their criminal history.  

Legislature failed to fund reentry identification card program 

The General Assembly also failed to fund a program that would have provided identification cards to all Kentuckians exiting a state prison or regional jail after completing a felony sentence.  

Having a photo ID is essential to access services and employment opportunities post-incarceration, and there can be various barriers for individuals to obtain one. State law requires photo IDs be provided to people upon release from prison, but at their current funding levels, the Department of Corrections and Department of Transportation lack even the several million dollars needed to provide the labor and equipment for this service.  

When it comes to incarceration and system-involvement in Kentucky, the legislature chose to go against what research, as well as what those with lived experience say will reduce crime in our communities.  These policy decisions will divert funding from services our communities need, separate families, and increase incarceration and hardship across the state, all while failing to address root causes of crime and homelessness.  

The post The 2024 Kentucky General Assembly Was the Most Regressive for Criminal Legal System Policies in Recent Memory appeared first on Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Republished from Kentucky Center for Economic Policy