Witness viewing room © Scott Langley
Three states have abolished the death penalty legislatively in recent years: New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009, and Illinois in 2011. Inevitably, more states will follow; but can a state or states abolish the death penalty in an even-numbered (read: election) year? We will find out in 2012.
As Politico reported on Friday, states that are poised to end their experiment with capital punishment next year include Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio, as well as California (through a ballot initiative). This is quite a diverse collection of states, ranging from small to large and from conservative to liberal, which goes to show how mainstream an issue death penalty abolition has become.
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By a 26-24 vote, the Montana Senate yesterday voted to repeal the death penalty. Twenty-two Democrats and 4 Republicans voted for the measure (SB 185), which now goes to the House. This is the second straight legislative session in which the Montana Senate has endorsed repeal.
This year, an abolition bill has already passed in Illinois, where it awaits action from the Governor. And other repeal bills have been filed in states across the country, from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to Washington.
Abolition has become more appealing to state legislators in recent years as they have become more aware of capital punishment’s exorbitant financial cost, the dangers of executing the innocent, and the grueling toll the death penalty process takes on victim families.
With a tie vote, the Kansas Senate today failed to pass SB 375, a bill which would have abolished that state’s death penalty. The Kansas Senate consists of 31 Republicans and 9 Democrats, and the vote was 20-20.
Extensive debates like the one today have been taking place in state legislatures across the country, reflecting a growing national concern that the death penalty is ineffective and unnecessary, and that there are better ways to tackle the problem of violent crime. Kansas has not had an execution since 1965, and has less than a dozen people on death row. On Thursday, Governor Mark Parkinson had said:
“I haven’t said I would never sign a repeal. I said it’s unlikely. If that bill hit my desk, I assure you I would spend a significant amount of time really researching whether the death penalty made sense.”
Now it appears he will not have to do that research, at least not this year. But the result of today’s debate underscored that support for capital punishment is increasingly precarious, with a growing number of conservatives voting to abandon the death penalty alongside their more liberal colleagues.
As we move deeper into January, most state legislative sessions have begun. The unifying feature in all these state legislatures is the grim economic and budget picture, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, several states will be debating the death penalty in very substantive ways. This week, legislative committees in Kansas and Washington are considering abolition.
The debate in Kansas is significant; their abolition bill, supported by Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn passed out of committee last year but was returned for further study. In 2003, an official government study concluded that the death penalty in Kansas costs considerably more than the alternatives, and Kansas has not carried out a single execution since the death penalty was reinstated.
Neither has New Hampshire, and a Study Commission in the Granite State is spending this year evaluating the pros and cons of retaining a punishment that they are most likely never going to use (1 death sentence since 1959, no executions since 1939). A bill to establish a similar study commission in Missouri has been filed, and there is likely to be serious consideration of that this year as well.
Despite a focus in 2010 on budgets and elections, capital punishment will continue to make news in the halls of many state legislatures. And, as in recent years (with some exceptions – Virginia, for example), the news will mostly be about efforts to restrict or eliminate the death penalty.
The death penalty costs money – more money than the alternatives – and, as Wonkette notes “basically every state in the union is broke”. This is why (or at least one of the reasons why) more states than ever before are having serious death penalty repeal debates. In Kansas, a Republican Senator has filed an abolition bill, telling FoxNews.com: “This will save significant money — money that could be used toward education programs and toward community corrections programs.” In Colorado, they don’t have enough money to solve cold cases, and a bill to pass along the savings from death penalty abolition to create a cold case unit has passed its first hurdle. New Hampshire suspended jury trials for an entire month to save money, and they haven’t executed anyone since 1939 – so why do they still have the death penalty?
Of course, the death penalty is a fundamental human rights violation, so even if it were dirt cheap, it would still be wrong and deserving of total abolition. But it’s not cheap at all … and we can’t afford it.