Youth Incarceration bill bad for Kentucky

KFTC’s vision statement reads:

We are working for a day when Kentuckians – and all people – enjoy a better quality of life…When all people have health care, shelter, food, education, and other basic needs…When children are listened to and valued…When discrimination is wiped out of our laws, habits, and hearts.

Kentucky legislators made many decisions that stand in the way of our vision during the 2018 General Assembly. Among them was the passage of House Bill 169, the "Youth Incarceration Bill." 

 HB 169 received final approval by the House and Senate on April 13. At the time this newsletter went to print, there was still an opportunity for Governor Bevin to veto the bill.

The bill expands the definition of gang membership, and mandates harsh sentences, even for misdemeanors, if one is part of a gang under a new, broad definition. The details of the bill are here. 

KFTC’s Platform states that:

We oppose the inappropriate use of police powers, the expansion and privatization of the prison system, and the use of excessive force by police, including the targeting and killing of African Americans and other people of color… We call for an immediate end to the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color, and the practices by which mass incarceration is currently implemented.

HB 169 would be a practice by which mass incarceration is implemented. The bill would destroy the futures of young Kentuckians and perpetuate racial profiling and mass incarceration.

Similar laws in other states proved ineffective at making communities safer. And they continued the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown folks, separating people from their families and destabilizing communities.

In Mississippi, the Jackson Free Press reported that only Black suspects had been prosecuted under a similar law from 2010 through 2017, despite the prevalence of white gangs in the state. Yet the Kentucky Senate rejected an amendment to add a racial impact study to the bill.

“HB169 is not only dangerous for Black and Brown young people as a pro-incarceration bill, it's dangerous because the very essence is reversing decades of work that many Black and Brown people fought against” Chanelle Helm of Louisville Black Lives Matter said. “Systemic racism is real and at the seat of a large regression of laws aimed at mass incarceration of Black folks and the deportation of indigenous Brown folks. Solidarity and fighting for social justice is fighting for justice for us all.”

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy reported that, “research shows such an approach does not reduce violent crime, could intensify gang activity and would likely disproportionately lead to the incarceration of persons of color for long periods of time.” KCEP’s fact sheet on the bill is at http://bit.ly/kcephb169.

To make communities safer, those dollars are better spent on education, affordable housing, mental health care, job training, and other services that prevent violence and help people thrive, numerous people pointed out.

State Representative Attica Scott said,“We are neither preventing gang violence nor addressing the root causes of gang affiliation with this measure. Young people who will be targeted by this bill have experienced almost all of the adverse childhood experiences that call us to support trauma-informed measures. Instead of taxpayers funding this $19,514,900 bill, we could fully fund public education, we could reinstate the $2 million that were cut from public libraries, we could fund teenage parenting programs, we could raise the minimum wage for families that are living paycheck-to-paycheck where kids feel like they have to go out and be breadwinners.”

KFTC members, especially in Lexington and Louisville, were called on by Black leaders and people of color-led organizations to stand in solidarity against the racist bill. Chapters and members used texts, emails, phone calls, and social media to grow opposition to HB 169. Members had lobby meetings, attended and testified at committee meetings, and worked with allies to organize transportation to Frankfort. 

During the public workers’ rally on April 13, Jefferson County chapter members handed out stickers that read, “Fund education, not incarceration.” They had conversations with teachers and public workers in line for shuttles about the intersection and connection of legislators voting to fund HB 169 while they were cutting funding for important services.

Rep. Scott pointed out on Twitter that grassroots opposition to the measure held legislators accountable and pressured many into changing their position since a similar bill was filed in the House during the 2017 General Assembly:

“Y'all. In 2017, only 3 no votes. In 2018 on the first vote, 17 no votes. Today, 30 no votes. People power across Kentucky did this despite the bill passing. Thank you to Kentuckians for standing in solidarity. #kyga18”

What opportunities exist today to sharpen our skills, strengthen our ally relationships, and build the grassroots power it will take to reverse the harm done by HB 169- and move closer to our vision and justice for all- during the 2019 General Assembly?