A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky lawmakers considering bill to ban death for penalty for defendants suffering from mental illness

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent seriously mentally ill defendants from receiving the death penalty.

A handful of other states, including Ohio, Virginia and Indiana, recently have pushed similar legislation.

Patrick Delahanty, director of advocacy for the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says the bill does not exclude everyone with some form of mental illness from capital punishment — only those with severe disorders such as schizophrenia.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 2 million people with mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. (Photo from Adobe Stock, via PNS)

“And so, it doesn’t seem fair in a system of justice that seeks to punish someone and also show people the difference between good and bad,” he states.

Delahanty says the bill is similar to a Kentucky law passed in the early 1990s that bars people deemed to be mentally disabled from being executed.

House Bill 237 is co-sponsored by Rep. Chad McCoy, a Republican from Bardstown, and nearly 30 other legislators.

Critics say the mentally ill are disproportionately given the death penalty. One analysis found more than 40% of people executed between 2000 and 2015 in the U.S. had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

Delahanty says mentally ill defendants still would be eligible for life sentences.

“They do need to be in a place where they are not able to harm people,” he states. “And so, they would be eligible for prison terms, and lengthy prisons terms, including up to life without parole.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness and other groups have publicly stated their opposition to executing people with serious mental health issues.

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