Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Four states. Four close votes

Suddenly, repealing the death penalty is a hot topic

Public attitudes and times change—sometimes quickly. Legislatures follow, albeit slowly. In recent years and election cycles, something is profoundly different about the death penalty. Death penalty abolition is not the kiss of death for elected officials. Governors are publicly stating their support for getting rid of the death penalty (Corzine in New Jersey, O’Malley in Maryland) or, at very least, their principled opposition (Kaine in Virginia).

Death penalty opponents are pressing forward and gaining support in a wide variety of state legislatures. In the first three months of this year alone, bills to abolish the death penalty have received serious consideration in Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico – four states that do not have a whole lot in common culturally or geographically. And, against all conventional wisdom the votes are surprisingly close. In New Mexico, an abolition bill passed the House and died in a Senate committee earlier this month by one vote. In Montana, an abolition bill passed the Senate and died in a House committee earlier this month by one vote. In Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature, abolition died today – again, by one vote. And in Maryland, a similar measure last week died in a Senate committee by – you guessed it – one vote.

Other states that have considered or are considering abolition or moratorium legislation in 2007 include Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. And not one non-death penalty state is seriously considering reinstatement.

Meanwhile, executions are down (the 2006 execution rate was at a ten-year low and this year’s execution rate likely will be lower still, with almost a dozen states suspending executions because of controversy over lethal injection procedures). Death sentences are down sharply, and in December of last year, the Gallup Poll found – for the first time in modern history – that Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty (in some states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, by wide margins).

What are we to make of the close votes in so many states? First, we see that a sea change is occurring around policy-makers’ attitudes about the death penalty. A new conventional wisdom is forming in many states’ legislatures that the death penalty is completely broken. Death sentences are bankrupting local jurisdictions. More and more wrongfully convicted individuals are exonerated. Lethal injections go spectacularly and horrifically wrong. Opponents of the death penalty, lawmakers and advocates alike, are heartened by this increasing support and know that it’s only a short time until their legislatures decide to end it, not mend it.

This will not happen overnight, as the recent close votes show. Legislative momentum for reform tends to be slow and incremental – but at the end of the day, permanent. The question is not whether we will abolish the death penalty. The question is when. We are now on our way.

1 comment:

T.S. said...

Another Willie Horton like incident could easily change public opinion (especially with all the media hype it would receive), politicians seem to follow the public on this issue more so than most issues.