Executions of mentally ill
on the line as legislative
session nears the end

Kentucky’s lawmakers took an incremental step toward changing the death penalty in Kentucky on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously, a 9-0 vote, to approve House Bill 269, which sailed through the House Feb. 9.

The bill prevents the execution of people diagnosed with certain serious mental illnesses at the time of their offenses. The bill lists the serious illnesses as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and delusional disorder.

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the public policy arm of Kentucky’s bishops, supports the measure and has been urging Catholics to contact their lawmakers to express their support.

As of The Record’s press time, the bill was listed on the orders of the day for March 24, though it could be pulled and voted on any of the remaining days of the session, said Jason Hall, executive director of the conference.

“If this isn’t voted on this week, every call matters because there will be only four legislative days remaining” after March 25, he said. “The Senate can vote on this any day. I hope by the time the readers see this story it’s already done, but if not, we need the Senators to take that vote.”

He noted that Kentucky’s bishops “have advocated for many years for complete abolition of the death penalty, but this takes several steps making it less unjust.”

House Bill 269 “removes from application of the death penalty those who lack full moral culpability. The death penalty is especially bad when it’s applied to folks who aren’t in full control of their actions.”

“If we’re going to eventually abolish it, every vote the legislature takes away from the death penalty makes it easier to take further steps,” Hall said. “This is a very small step, but this is a step.

“When something is as difficult to uproot as the death penalty, every step is significant and worth taking.”

Hall said the Catholic conference is concerned about two other bills making their way through the legislative process. Among them are House Bill 7, which addresses public assistance, and House Bill 8, which relates to tax reform.

The conference is concerned about HB 7’s work requirements and burdensome paperwork for Medicaid recipients that come with significant penalties, Hall said.

“It undermines the purpose of programs like Medicaid and SNAP and TANF” assistance program. “It’s not the direction we need to be going.”

“The Catholic Church teaches there is a preferential option for the poor. When it comes to setting public policy, we should take special care of those on the economic margins,” he said. “When we try to draw lines on the deserving or undeserving poor or we try to create a narrative about why someone needs public assistance, that is an incorrect narrative.”

He noted concerns about people defrauding public assistance programs have become part of the narrative, as well.

“We aren’t defending fraud, but fraud needs to be investigated and prosecuted, not addressed through sweeping legislative changes that burden people who legitimately need a program,” he said.

The tax reform envisioned in House Bill 8 is objectionable to Kentucky’s bishops, Hall said, on two fronts. First, it envisions a regressive tax, moving away from income tax and toward consumption-based tax. Such a move would shift the tax burden onto those least able to pay, Hall said.

In addition, he said, the bishops are concerned about the bill’s tax cut.

“It is an immediate $900 million tax cut overall. The state budget is flush right now, but that will not always be the case,” Hall said. “Whatever happens in the future, an almost billion-dollar reduction in revenue will be felt in years to come.”

Hall cited a document penned by Kentucky’s bishops called “Catholic Principles and Taxation,” which says government budgets are moral documents.

“Governments need to raise enough revenue to care for people on the margins,” Hall said. When tax cuts don’t make that feasible, “that’s going to be a big problem.”

Hall encouraged Kentucky’s Catholics to put their faith into action quickly by calling their legislators and asking them to support HB 269 and oppose House Bills 7 and 8.

To contact lawmakers about these bills, call the legislative message line at 1-800-372-7181. An operator can send a message to legislators based on the caller’s address.

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