< Back to News

Kentucky HB5 Unveiled: The Dangerous Path of Criminalizing Addiction

February 29, 2024

Authored by John Bowman, Senior Campaign Organizer


In 2023, I had the opportunity to travel across Kentucky meeting with hundreds of people from all walks of life. At each stop on our tour - in cities like Paducah, Louisville, Covington, Prestonsburg, and Lexington - I, along with a coalition of partners, hosted a series of "Public Health is Public Safety" events. These meetings were some of the best experiences of my life. Relationships between unlikely allies were forged, and solutions addressing root causes that treat people with dignity and respect were discussed.  Treatment and harm reduction strategies were introduced and shown how effective they are in addressing the problems.  Progress was achieved in areas in which it had never occurred previously. Now, all that is in danger of going away forever because of a bill, "Safer Kentucky Act" that will set us back decades in Kentucky.

Unlikely Allies and Honest Dialog

The Public Health is Public Safety events brought together people with very different perspectives who historically haven’t seen eye-to-eye. This group included criminal justice reform advocates, law enforcement officers, healthcare and treatment providers, those in long-term recovery, faith leaders, formerly incarcerated individuals, local business owners, and concerned citizens.

What united this diverse coalition was a shared desire to find approaches that work to address problems plaguing our communities. All recognized that issues like addiction, homelessness, and high arrest rates are symptoms of much deeper problems and unaddressed issues such as lack of access to affordable housing, job opportunities, or access to substance abuse treatment and mental health resources.

By bringing these diverse perspectives together, we aimed to have open discussions about comprehensive, long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. With open but respectful dialogue and an acknowledgment that arrest and conviction are not answers to decreasing drug use and crime rates in society; rather, they are significant contributors to the underlying socio-economic factors that give rise to the increases in substance use and crime in society. Collectively, we explored practical ways to curb substance abuse at its source and divert people accused of non-violent drug crimes to treatment or other alternatives, prioritizing overall public health and safety for all community members.

Something remarkable happened at these events. People made a real effort to listen and to understand each other with open minds. Law enforcement officers discussed options with treatment providers. Community members shared perspectives with those recovering from substance use disorders. Real substantive change was being made in those rooms.

For the first time, these groups collaboratively explored compassionate approaches focused on health rather than punishment. They looked at diverting people to treatment instead of arresting them for possession. We discussed the urgent need for harm reduction strategies and expanding social support.

Real progress was made in reforming how our state addresses these complex problems. But that progress now faces a major setback. A new proposal called House Bill 5,  the "Safer Kentucky Act" will bring back horrible, outdated policies of mandatory minimums and criminalizing substance abuse disorder and not having a home.

If passed, it will undo the progress achieved and cost taxpayers money while decimating lives. Kentucky deserves solutions shown to work through evidence and care for humanity - not a recycled approach from a harmful past.

From Darkness to Light: My Story, a Testament to the Flawed System

For over two decades, I struggled with substance use issues that led to repeated involvement in the criminal justice system. It was a cycle of use, incarceration, and relapse that consumed much of my life. Two felony convictions remain on my record as a constant reminder of that difficult period. 

There were many low points when overcoming addiction seemed impossible. None greater than when I was arrested and convicted. Losing what I had and going to prison made things significantly more difficult to get sober and address my substance abuse disorder with effective treatment, therapy, and support.  But I held onto a small glimmer of hope that one day I could find a better way. After years of setbacks, I finally reached a point where I was able to make my recovery work. 

It has now been several years since I entered my recovery. The journey has been challenging, but I have been successful in finding support and those things that make my recovery work. It is this experience of having been in the system and facing those challenges that compels me to speak out strongly against House Bill 5.

HB5: A Closer Look at the Monster Beneath the Hood

House Bill 5 throws the harshest of punishments at people suffering from substance abuse disorder and addiction as well as those that are the most marginalized in our society, people experiencing homelessness, issues with complex roots demanding thoughtful and multifaceted solutions grounded in compassion and empathy. The data is in and the debate is settled. Incarceration does not reduce drug use or lower crime in the community; in fact, these policies often preserve the problems and place those caught up in the system in a never-ending cycle of loss and struggle.

Seeking refuge from the harsh elements is not a criminal act, it's an act of desperation and survival. The cruel reality of HB5 criminalizes homelessness, pushing people already struggling further into the margins instead of offering a lifeline. It ignores the root causes of their plight - the lack of affordable housing, the shortage of mental health resources, and the absence of treatment options.

Kentucky already holds the dubious distinction of having the 7th highest incarceration rate in the world. HB5, with its harsher sentences and expanded criminal offenses, threatens to deepen this crisis. Picture families shattered, communities burdened, and resources stretched thin. Is this the "safety" HB5 promises?

But the evil of HB5 lies in its obvious and predictable discriminatory impact. Black and Brown communities, already disproportionately burdened by the justice system's biases, will be hit the hardest. This bill isn't just about numbers; it's about perpetuating systemic inequalities, about denying justice to those who need it most.

Here's how HB5 goes wrong:

  • Criminalizing Homelessness: Imagine seeking shelter under a bridge because you have nowhere else to go, only to be branded a criminal. That's what HB5 proposes, pushing people further into the shadows instead of offering a helping hand.
  • Ignoring the Root Causes: Addiction and poverty aren't crimes; they're cries for help. HB5 ignores the lack of affordable housing, mental health resources, and treatment options that fuel these challenges.
  • Mass Incarceration Trap: Kentucky already has the 7th highest incarceration rate in the world. HB5's harsher sentences will only deepen this crisis, straining our resources and failing to make us safer.
  • Disproportionate Impact: Black and Brown communities, already overrepresented in the justice system, will bear the brunt of HB5's cruelty. This perpetuates systemic inequalities and undermines justice.

Building Bridges, Not Walls: A Brighter Future for Kentucky: Instead of building walls of punishment, let's build bridges of opportunity. We need:

  • Investment in housing and mental health services: Picture safe havens, not prison cells, for those struggling with homelessness and mental illness. Imagine access to care readily available, a lifeline thrown instead of a stone.
  • Evidence-based solutions for addiction: Envision treatment centers bustling with hope, not incarceration facilities overflowing with despair. Imagine replacing the stigma with support, the chains with compassion.
  • Community-based programs: Think of local initiatives, tailored to specific needs, empowering communities to heal from within. Imagine the collective strength, the shared knowledge, and the triumphs celebrated together.
  • Second chances: See individuals who've stumbled rise again, their past mistakes paving the path to a brighter future. Imagine redemption embraced, potential unleashed, and lives transformed.

I urge you to raise your voices against HB5. Contact your representatives, share your stories, and demand solutions that build a safer, more just Kentucky. Together, we can rewrite this narrative and create a future where compassion, not punishment, prevails.

Remember, this isn't just about a bill; it's about our values. Let's show Kentucky that we value second chances, human dignity, and solutions that work. Let's show them that we are better than this.

Join me. Fight for a Kentucky where everyone has a chance to thrive.

P.S. Share this blog post, write your own, and let's get the word out! Together, we can make a difference.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.