The 2021 Kentucky General Assembly adjourned on Tuesday, March 30, just before midnight, wrapping up a whirlwind legislative session.
Over the last three months, the ACLU of Kentucky tracked over 270 bills, connected dozens of Kentuckians with their elected representatives, testified in several committee hearings each week, and worked with lawmakers and other advocates over countless texts, phone calls, emails, and zoom meetings.
Supporters like you also helped keep the pressure on lawmakers by sending over 5,300 emails and encouraging other Kentuckians to take action by helping us send over 300,000 text messages.
During the 30-day session, several pieces of legislation affecting civil liberties advanced to the Governor's desk. As expected, lawmakers continued their years-long effort to restrict abortion access. At the same time, they also passed several positive justice reform measures that will reduce incarceration rates and give Kentuckians and their communities the support they need to combat the root causes of incarceration. Lawmakers also moved measures to restrict or abolish the death penalty further than in past years, though none passed.
Kentucky lawmakers followed the national trend of attacking transgender children and filed a record number of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ bills. Thankfully none of them moved forward, but we do expect them to return next year. Bucking the national trend, lawmakers learned from the success of expanded ballot access in 2020 and modestly expanded voting access. Despite this, last year's harmful voter photo ID law still stands and Kentucky's voting laws remain more restrictive than Georgia's, even with their new suppression measures. This law does not provide everything Kentucky voters need, but is a positive step forward.
Last, but certainly not least, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 4, a version of Breonna's Law that will severely restrict the use of no-knock warrants. Passed in response to the murder of Breonna Taylor, SB4 is an excellent first step in reimagining the role of police in community safety, though it in no way provides justice for Breonna Taylor or the degree of policy change communities need. The majority of these deadly raids are served in search of drugs, and limiting their use will help stop some future harm from the failed war on drugs. When Louisville Metro Police Department killed Breonna Taylor, officers were searching for drugs that did not exist and a person LMPD already had in custody. As Breonna Taylor’s mother said, Breonna was an EMT and her dream was to save lives. This law will save lives.
2021 LEGISLATIVE SESSION BY THE NUMBERS
- 880 bills filed: 157 signed into law, 32 enacted over the Governor's vetoes, 39 vetoed, 11 enacted without the Governor's signature
- 2 proposed amendments to the Kentucky Constitution passed (They now go to the voters and will appear on ballots in 2022.)
- 270 bills tracked by ACLU-KY
- 76 priority bills
- 39 opposed by ACLU-KY: 8 became law (3 signed by Governor, 1 enacted without Governor's signature, 4 enacted over Governor's veto)
- 37 supported by ACLU-KY: 11 became law with Governor's signature
- 76 priority bills
- 95 legislative meetings between ACLU-KY staff, Smart Justice Advocates, and engaged Kentuckians
- 53 meetings between ACLU-KY staff and 34 lawmakers
- 23 meetings with Smart Justice Advocates and 47 lawmakers
- 19 meetings with engaged Kentuckians
- 18 committee hearings included testimony from or coordinated by ACLU-KY
- 310,644 text messages sent by over 50 volunteers in 8 text banks encouraging other Kentuckians to take action
- 5,300 emails from ACLU-KY supporters to lawmakers
2021 WINS AND LOSSES
The ACLU of Kentucky team works on legislation in a number of areas that affect civil rights and liberties. Below are some of the specific wins and losses from the 2021 legislative session. You can click on the bill name to learn more about what it will do, which lawmakers voted yes and no, when it passed, and more. You can see our top priority bills from the legislative session here.
Senate Bill 84, Dignity Bill Part 2: SB84 will build on a 2018 law named "Dignity Bill." Together, these laws will support pregnant incarcerated people by ensuring they have the necessary resources for safe, healthy pregnancies. This law will end solitary confinement during pregnancy and in the post-partum period and ensure 6 weeks of post-partum care. It will also expand pregnancy medical release to include substance use disorder treatment in the same facility in which the person is incarcerated so it can be readily accessed. The bill will also provide social workers who can work with incarcerated people to determine care for their infant and develop a reunification plan.
Senate Bill 9, the so-called "born alive" bill: SB9 is not based in the real-life practice of medicine. It serves only to shame and ostracize patients and healthcare providers.
House Bill 91, a proposed amendment to the Kentucky Constitution to ban abortion: HB91 is a proposal to change the Kentucky Constitution to ban abortion – even in cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening conditions – in the event that Roe v. Wade is ever weakened or overturned. It would also enshrine an existing law prohibiting insurance companies from covering abortion. This proposal will appear on ballots in the 2022 election and will be decided by the voters.
House Bill 2, Attorney General power grab: HB2 will allow the Attorney General to interfere with and undermine oversight of abortion care providers, instead of leaving it to career health experts in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS). This law is clearly targeted at abortion care providers as it expands the A.G.'s power to only this type of healthcare and no others. The Governor vetoed this harmful bill, but lawmakers promptly overrode the veto.
- Senate Bill 4, a version of Breonna's Law: This law will limit the use of deadly no-knock warrants. A majority of these raids are used to search for drugs and are a staple of the failed war on drugs. No-knock raids are especially dangerous in states like Kentucky that adhere to the Castle Doctrine, or the legal rights to defend your property with lethal force if you believe you are in danger. As Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine said, no amount of drugs or drug money is worth a human life. SB4 is a small step forward in reimagining the role of police in public safety. It does not deliver justice for Breonna Taylor, who was murdered when Louisville Metro Police Department officers invaded her home in the dark of night searching for drugs that did not exist and a person their own department already had in custody. We will continue supporting the community's calls for justice, working with lawmakers to fully ban no-knock warrants, and promoting community-driven policies that will truly protect and serve all people fairly under the law.
- Senate Bill 32, keeping children out of adult court: SB32 will end the automatic transfer of children to adult court for some charges by giving judges more discretion. Children placed in adult court are more likely to wind up back in the criminal legal system and are disproportionately Black. 53% of children charged as adults in Kentucky are Black, despite Black people of all ages comprising only 8% of the state's population. Kids need support, not adult courts and prisons.
- Senate Bills 52 and 80, increased police accountability: These measures will make it easier to hold law enforcement accountable to the same laws they enforce on everyone else. SB80 will also allow a law enforcement agency considering a new hire to view the job applicant's personnel records from their past employers. This will reduce instances of officers getting fired from one agency for misconduct and getting rehired at another. One of the officers involved in Breonna Taylor's murder was asked to leave the Lexington Police Department due to misconduct and was later hired by Louisville Metro Police Department.
- House Bill 497, second chances and job opportunities: HB 497 will help Kentuckians get back on their feet after incarceration by assisting with resume building, work certificates, accessing SNAP, acquiring valid ID, and more. This will strengthen Kentuckians, keep families together, and grow our economy.
- House Bill 126, increasing the felony theft threshold: HB126 will change the value of stolen property that determines if a person is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor from $500 to $1,000. Kentucky's past threshold had not been updated since 2009, lagging behind inflation and falling far behind surrounding states. This helped balloon the number of incarcerated Kentuckians and punished people with overly harsh sentences.
- House Bill 7, Recovery Ready Communities: HB7 will create a council to help all counties provide people with substance use disorders with the services they need. Advocates successfully persuaded lawmakers to include people with personal experiences related to substance use disorder and recovery on the council.
- House Bill 51, for increased access to treatment for substance use disorder: HB51 will help Kentuckians more easily access treatment for substance use disorder by prohibiting insurance providers from requiring or using certain utilization reviews for certain drugs used to treat substance use disorder.
- Senate Bill 11, renter intimidation: SB11 will enhance criminal penalties and create new felonies for renters convicted of property damage. Landlords already have ways to recoup losses and hold tenants accountable within the legal system. This law increase incarceration rates, allow landlords to intimidate vulnerable tenants, and reduce housing security. The Governor vetoed this bill, but lawmakers overrode his veto and it became law. This was especially cruel to do during a pandemic when losing one's housing would be particularly dangerous.
Kentucky lawmakers followed the disturbing national trend and filed a record number of bills attacking LGBTQ Kentuckians. Some of the worst went after transgender children, some of the most vulnerable people in our commonwealth. Some of them would have banned access to gender-affirming healthcare for children, kicked students out of sports, and invaded the privacy of how children use the bathroom. None of these bills advanced out of committee due to many other pressing matters related to the pandemic, state budget, and short legislation; however, we expect similar legislation to make progress next year when the General Assembly has more time.
On the other side, our allies at the Fairness Campaign and Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky made progress in the effort to ban the torturous practice known as conversion therapy and to pass a statewide Fairness law that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
ABOLITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY
Legislation to limit the use of the death penalty made it significantly further through the legislative process than in past years. House Bill 148, a bill to abolish the use of the death penalty against people diagnosed with a severe mental illness, passed the House of Representatives. Senate Bill 60, a bill to entirely abolish this practice garnered support from lawmakers in both parties. We are hopeful legislation similar to HB148 will pass through both chambers next year. The death penalty must be abolished entirely, and HB148 would be a step in that direction.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Several bills attacking free speech were filed this year, from legislation that would reduce government transparency to extreme bills that would make it illegal to say something insulting to a police officer. Some passed, but pressure from your emails and phone calls helped us stop these extreme measures in their tracks:
- House Bill 479 (failed), attack on the right to protest: HB479 would have allowed the Attorney General to personally prosecute people for protest-related charges, even if local prosecutors decline to do so. HB479 failed, but was a naked attempt to stifle dissent after the 2020 racial justice protests and A.G. Cameron's failed leadership in the investigation of Breonna Taylor's murder.
- Senate Bill 211 (failed), attack on the right to protest and exercise free speech: SB211 was a blatant attempt to silence free speech in response to the 2020 racial justice protests. SB211 would have made it illegal to say insulting things to law enforcement officers, enhanced penalties for protest-related charges, and made it illegal to camp in public spaces. The camping provision clearly targeted peaceful occupiers demanding justice for Breonna Taylor at Injustice Square in downtown Louisville, but it would have also made it illegal for homeless people to camp outside even if all shelters are full.
- Senate Bill 48 (vetoed), open records restriction: SB48 would have restricted access to public records about public officials – even basic information like proof lawmakers live in the districts they represent.
- House Bill 312, open records restrictions: HB312 will make the General Assembly its own referee when it comes to open records requests for legislative records. It will remove the option for the public to appeal a denial of records to a court. It will also require anyone requesting records to live in Kentucky, limiting access to journalists and researchers elsewhere. Lawmakers should be accountable to the people, not themselves.
- Senate Bill 267, so-called "anti-doxing bill": SB267 will make it illegal for someone to exercise speech that may make another person feel threatened. It also allows prosecution if that person's family member believes they may be threatened but that person does not. The intention of this law was positive, but it was written too broadly to meet its goals and protect free speech.