Aiexpress – Republican lawmakers in Kentucky presented a bill on Tuesday that aims to make homeless encampments illegal and extend the state’s Stand Your Ground law to permit property owners to confront unhoused individuals with firearms. The proposed legislation, known as the “Safer Kentucky Act,” has already garnered support from over 45 Republican co-sponsors. Additionally, the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police has expressed its commitment to testifying in favor of the bill during a committee hearing.
“I feel a deep sense of shame that this bill has made its way to reality, and I urge everyone to reach out to their legislators and voice their opposition,” expressed Tayna Fogle, council member of District 1 in Lexington.
Cities will be given the power to designate certain areas for homeless individuals under the proposed legislation. If individuals are discovered outside of these designated areas, residing in a tent, hut, temporary shelter, or vehicle with the intention of sleeping, they could potentially face misdemeanor charges. This could result in a fine of $5,000 and a maximum prison sentence of 90 days.
Catherine McGeeney, the director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless, a Louisville-based advocacy group, emphasizes that simply telling someone they can’t sleep in their car or in an encampment does not solve the issue of homelessness. She firmly believes that taking away funding from proven and successful housing programs is not the solution to ending homelessness.
The bill also grants individuals the power to defend themselves against an unhoused person in cases of criminal trespass, such as “unlawful camping” on their property. This provision permits property owners to use lethal force against unhoused individuals without being held accountable for any criminal repercussions.
McGeeney strongly disagrees with the idea of using force against individuals who are homeless. Instead, he believes in de-escalating the situation and providing assistance to those in need.
The proposed legislation not only encompasses a variety of additional criminal charges but also introduces a “Three Strike Law” aimed at repeat violent felony offenders. Furthermore, it suggests increased penalties for fentanyl distribution resulting in an overdose, categorizes fleeing from law enforcement as a Class C felony, and grants authorization for the death penalty in cases involving the murder of a first responder.
The decision to impose stricter criminal charges will inevitably lead to a rise in the number of people being sent to already overcrowded prisons. According to a 2021 analysis conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, Kentucky would rank as the 7th highest country in terms of incarceration rates if it were an independent nation. This alarming statistic is a direct consequence of the state’s policy choices regarding criminal justice. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice revealed that between 1985 and 2018, Kentucky witnessed a more than threefold increase in its jail and prison rates. This surge in incarceration rates can be attributed to the state’s reliance on criminalization as a means to address issues such as poverty, homelessness, and addiction. Unfortunately, the heightened focus on criminalizing social problems in 2022 has exacerbated the problem of overcrowding in Kentucky’s jails. By the end of April, the number of individuals held in jails had surpassed 21,000, with an additional 9,835 people incarcerated in state prisons.
Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chair of the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed in September that it is often simpler to advocate for tough measures, such as cleaning up the streets and incarcerating individuals. However, he acknowledged that the more challenging task lies in supporting recovery efforts and rebuilding individuals.
Various advocacy groups, such as the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Louisville Urban League, the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, and the Kentucky Council of Churches, came together on Tuesday to hold a press conference. During the conference, they strongly condemned the bill.
Felicia Nu’Man, the director of policy for the Louisville Urban League, believes that it is not sustainable to continue incarcerating everyone. She argues that this approach is driven by emotional reactions rather than logical reasoning. According to her, the decision to incarcerate individuals for extended periods should be based on legitimate concerns about potential violent acts, rather than a mere frustration with their inconvenient behavior or struggles with mental health issues like addiction.