A Time to Speak – The cost of the death penalty is severe

Rep. Chad McCoy
Rep. Chad McCoy

Some issues are bigger than politics. They push and pull at our core beliefs, forcing us to show our convictions.

For me, abolition of the death penalty in Kentucky is one of those issues. 

My stand against the death penalty is rooted in my belief that capital punishment is wrong in accordance with the rulings of the church and my own conscience. But there are also logical arguments for abolition of the state’s death penalty arguments based on conservative principles of fiscal responsibility and smaller government.

The financial costs of the death penalty to the Commonwealth are severe. Up to $8 million in Kentucky taxpayer money is spent each year on the prosecution and defense of capital cases and imprisonment of the state’s 33 death row inmates, according to the state Department of Public Advocacy. That’s over $100 million paid by taxpayers to maintain what the state Public Advocate’s Office in 2009 called “a death penalty system that has executed three people” since 1976.

These costs are not expected to be reduced anytime soon since they mount with each new capital case. Research shows that capital cases are most costly during the pretrial and trial phases. The appeals phase, which averages 15 to 20 years, tacks millions of dollars more onto the taxpayers’ bill.

Kentuckians should ask ourselves if these costs are sustainable at a time when our public pension systems are nearly insolvent and our state and local government budgets face more cuts. I might suggest that we also look at whether or not the Commonwealth’s reasons for keeping the death penalty are reasonable and fair.

Humans are imperfect beings. We make all kinds of mistakes, including errors in the adjudication of the death penalty. That stark reality was illuminated in a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times, which reported that 50 of 78 people sentenced to death in Kentucky between 1976 and 2011 had their sentences overturned, “15 of those for prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct.” That is an immense margin of error for such a critical outcome.

My professional experience as an attorney who has practiced criminal law has taught me that the purpose of the penal code is public safety. Probable cause, due process, and every rule of law built into the criminal justice system is there to protect the victim, the defendant and the public as a whole. When the system works, it accomplishes three things: It prevents crime, it prevents a criminal from reoffending (or recidivism), and it guards against the system being used for retribution, or revenge. When it doesn’t work, it creates unnecessary and costly layers of government.

Study after study has shown that the death penalty is not an effective crime deterrent. Those wanting a quick show of evidence need look no further than recent FBI Uniform Crime Reports that show more homicides in states that generously use the death penalty than in other states.  If you look at U.S. executions carried out in 2017 alone—as published on the Death Penalty Information Center web site—you’ll notice many of those executions took place in these high-crime states.

So, let’s consider for a moment that the death penalty is not a crime deterrent. If that’s true, then the death penalty fails all three tests of a working criminal justice system: It’s not a crime deterrent, and it doesn’t guard against retribution as a working system should. Considering that revenge should never be the basis for law, the death penalty needs to be abolished.

Kentucky will have another chance to abolish the death penalty when I introduce a bill to that end in the upcoming 2018 legislative session. Abolition of this flawed form of punishment is the right thing to do fiscally, socially and spiritually. It is my hope that my colleagues in the General Assembly will agree.

State Rep. Chad McCoy represents the 50th House District and is a member of  the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., and often worships at Holy Rosary Church in Manton, Ky.

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