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In Split From Party, A Republican Lawmaker's Push To Repeal Kentucky Death Penalty


We're going to start the program today looking at the Justice Department's decision to resume federal executions. The announcement comes at a time when many states are shifting away from capital punishment, including more conservative ones. This might come as a surprise since according to polls, including a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, a clear majority of Republicans support the death penalty.

One Republican who does not fit that demographic is Kentucky State Representative Chad McCoy. He hopes his state will be the next to repeal the death penalty. He's the House majority whip in Kentucky and also an attorney, and he's introduced his own bill to stop executions. Representative Chad McCoy joins us now.


CHAD MCCOY: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: So, first of all, what did you make of the Justice Department's announcement this past week?

MCCOY: Well, I was obviously disappointed, given that we're trying to get rid of it at a state level - wasn't surprised, given the current administration.

MCCAMMON: And there are some - a couple of federal prisons in Kentucky. What are the implications of this announcement for those facilities?

MCCOY: You know, Sarah, that's a good question, and honestly, I don't know. I've not done any federal criminal law. But obviously, it's going to crank everything back up again and start costing a lot of money.

MCCAMMON: And, of course, what we're talking about is a federal decision. But you have proposed repealing the death penalty at the state level in Kentucky. Why?

MCCOY: You know, the death penalty - you can come at it from a lot of different ways, and obviously, it's one of those sort of divisive issues. It gets religion involved. It gets a little bit of politics involved. But for me, I come at it from an economic standpoint. You know, the state of Kentucky has for years struggled with our budget. And when you look at a death penalty inmate, just on average, we spend about $12,000 more per year simply in housing them.

And, Sarah, when you start to really look at the other costs, the court costs, the Department of Public Advocacy spends 3 to 4 million, prosecutors spend about the same, the court's another one to two. So our state's spending about 10 million a year. And the reality is we're not executing anybody. So I think from a just purely economic standpoint, we need to get rid of it, move to life without parole and use the money for something better.

MCCAMMON: Representative McCoy, Kentucky currently has, I believe, 31 people on death row. If your bill to repeal the death penalty were successful, what would then happen to them?

MCCOY: Well, the good thing is we would be able to close death row. It's a very costly prison for us. Those folks would then be moved to a maximum security back with the other inmates who already have the life in prison without parole. You know, that's not a new category for Kentucky. So we already know how to take care of those folks. We already have the facilities for them. This would just allow us to move those 30 or 31 into that facility.

MCCAMMON: And why is the death penalty so much more expensive than life imprisonment?

MCCOY: Well, you have a number of different things. First and foremost, it's just the facility. The "death row" - quote-unquote - is an actual place. And it has stricter guards, a lot more manpower involved. So the simple cost of housing goes up. Now, factor in all of the other costs that are associated with a death row case.

You've got the Department of Public Advocacy. They are spending, like I said, 3 to 4 million per year. You've got all the prosecutors spending an equal amount. And the time that clogs up the court system - all the way through, you know, the local courts, the appellate courts and the Supreme Court of Kentucky. We're literally looking at 10 million a year just on these - what did we say? - 30, 31 cases.

MCCAMMON: As we mentioned, polls show that a strong majority of Republicans do still support the death penalty. You're one of the growing number of those, though, who have called for repealing it. And there has been a move, as we said earlier, in some red states to repeal the death penalty. What do you think accounts for that shift? Is it just about economics?

MCCOY: No, I don't think it's solely economics. But, again, you know, most Republicans are pro-life. And when you start looking at the abortion issue and the life issue, you start to have to ask yourself, am I being consistent when I'm looking at the death penalty?

And, you know, for the longest time, the death penalty from the criminal law standpoint was there only for society's revenge. You know, it doesn't serve the other goals of criminal law. There's no rehabilitation of anybody. There's no study that shows that it helps prevent crime. So we're really kind of in that Old Testament retribution. And I think as we move more and more away from that and then factor in the economics, there's a real reason to get rid of it.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned, though, religion in politics as well as economics. I'm curious - how do you think about the morality of this question of the death penalty?

MCCOY: Well, you know, I'm a Republican, but I'm also Catholic. So for me, the religious side, if we went there, I would be very much be against the death penalty, very much pro-life. And I see the pro-life and the death penalty - you kind of have to be consistent, in my mind.

MCCAMMON: You talk about your Catholic faith and how you look at this question through that lens. Of course, there are people who think that religion ought to be set aside. But I think in reality, many people do look at it at political questions through the lens of their own values. But white evangelicals make up a big part of the Republican Party. There are a lot of white evangelicals there in Kentucky as well. Of course, many white evangelicals oppose abortion, so I'm curious how you make that case to them.

MCCOY: Well, and that's why I'm, quite frankly, focusing on the economics. - But when you start talking about the numbers, the numbers are numbers. And it's pretty clear in a state like ours where we have desperate needs to use the money in other places - to shore up our pensions, you know, to help with our school system - this is simply an area where I think if you look at it logically, we're not getting any benefit from a criminal law standpoint, so let's spend our money somewhere else.

MCCAMMON: So the fiscal argument might make the case where the moral argument is more complex.

MCCOY: That's right.

MCCAMMON: And how much bipartisan support do you have? What is the likelihood of this actually passing?

MCCOY: Well, we need to get a hearing first. You know how the committee structure works. And we have quite a bit of bipartisan support. There are a number of Catholics in the Republican majority. Obviously, a lot of the Democrats are for it. So I'm hopeful that we can get a hearing, and I think if we can, we'll see this bill pass.

MCCAMMON: That's Kentucky State Representative Chad McCoy.

Representative McCoy, thanks so much for your time.

MCCOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.