Kentucky’s Catholic bishops have been aiming to end the death penalty for the mentally ill for more than a decade.
That effort gained ground this month when the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill to ban executions of people with a severe mental illness. House Bill 269 was then overwhelmingly approved in a vote on the House floor Feb. 9.
“I’m very hopeful,” said Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the public policy voice of Kentucky’s bishops. “This session, the ground has been prepared and it has been fine-tuned.”
Fine-tuning the bill means legislators have made compromises, he said, noting that the definition of severe mental illness is limited in scope and the illness must have been diagnosed prior to the offense.
“That’s been a compromise to get it through. We wish it did more,” he said. “But one solid step away from the death penalty in at least some cases is a good thing.”
Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville who has worked on abolishing the death penalty for three decades, said the vote is a step in the right direction.
“Anytime we can whittle away at the use of the death penalty we are closer to respecting life the way that we should,” said the priest, who leads the Kentucky Committee to End Executions.
He and the bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Chad McCoy of Nelson County, testified at the judiciary committee hearing Feb. 2. The bill now heads to the Senate.
The Kentucky Committee to End Executions, the Catholic conference and 10 other organizations are part of the Kentucky Alliance for the Seriously Mentally Ill Exclusion Act. Among the supporters are organizations that advocate for individuals with mental illness.
“There are pretty clear teachings in the Catholic tradition about how to treat those with disabilities,” said Father Delahanty in a phone interview. “The mental illnesses described in this bill completely take away a person’s ability to think clearly.”
Those who can’t understand what they are doing because of a serious mental illness, he said, should not “be held to the same degree of culpability we hold someone who is mentally healthy.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the death penalty is meant for the worst of the worst. Certainly disabled persons, because of the severity of their mental illness, are not the worst of the worst, and should not face executions,” he said.
More information about the bill and other priorities of the church will be discussed during the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Catholics at the Capitol event in Frankfort, Ky., on Feb. 23.
For more information or to register (which is required), contact Mary Wurtz at Catholic Charities at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 637-9786.