State Watch

Red states move to end death penalty

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Some of the most conservative states in the country are leading a new effort to abolish the death penalty, a punishment that a growing number of Republicans say does not serve to deter offenders from committing crimes.
In Wyoming, the state House passed a bill Friday to end capital punishment. In Virginia, the state Senate voted to bar the death penalty for those with serious mental illnesses. And in Kentucky, state House Majority Whip Chad McCoy (R) has introduced his own bill to stop executions.
{mosads}Republicans who back the push to end capital punishment said they view the practice as immoral, ineffective — and costly.
“When you talk about death penalty, a lot of people immediately want to have a criminal justice angle on it or a morality angle. And mine is purely economics,” McCoy said in an interview.
Those on death row “have cost us an inordinate amount of money, and if we just went with life without parole, we would save the state millions and millions of dollars,” he added.
In Wyoming, the state spends about $750,000 every year on legal bills associated with death row inmates, even though no one has been sentenced to death since 2004.
“I think we have to decide what our system to look like. If it’s not a deterrent, we have to ask ourselves what is it,” said state Rep. Jared Olsen (R), who sponsored the Wyoming bill. “I think the only thing we can conclude is that it serves one purpose, and that’s retribution. I personally don’t believe that we want to enshrine in our laws a system of retribution.”
Olsen said he was troubled by the number of prisoners sentenced to death who had subsequently been exonerated. Since 1973, more than 160 people have been released from death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a think tank that opposes capital punishment.
“That tells me that the system is broken,” Olsen said. “It is way too much authority to vest in our government, and we get it wrong.”
McCoy said he is building a coalition of Catholic legislators who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds and traditional Republicans who see it as ineffective both in deterring crime and in keeping costs down.
“I’m a very pro-life person, and if you’re going to be pro-life, it would include these lives,” McCoy said. “I’m hoping we can at least get a vote.”
Thirty states still allow death sentences, including both the most liberal and the most conservative states in the country.
More people sit on death row in California, 740, than any other state; more people have been executed in Texas, 559, than in the next six states that most often use the death penalty combined.
But the number of death sentences carried out has fallen dramatically in recent years, from a high of 98 in 1999 to just 25 in 2018, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty less often, said Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director. Death penalty sentences have dropped 85 percent since the mid-1990s. Only 42 death sentences were handed out in 2018, down from 295 in 1998.
The new push against the death penalty reflects an evolving political reality. Where opposition to the death penalty was once seen as being soft on crime, both Republicans and Democrats now back so-called smart on crime approaches to the criminal justice system.
“The typical view of the death penalty was an ideological view. Now it’s becoming much more of a pragmatic view. Republicans are subjecting the death penalty to the same kind of scrutiny that had previously been reserved for social programs,” Dunham said. 
“More and more Republicans are voting for repeal. Democrats support repeal at a higher rate, but the combination of the high rate at which Democrats are supporting repeal and the growing rate at which Republicans are supporting repeal has created a bipartisan consensus that hadn’t previously existed,” he said.
{mossecondads}Several other states have moved toward abolishing the death penalty in recent years.
The Washington state Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 2018; a Democratic supermajority in Oregon is moving to limit the death penalty solely to terrorism cases, which would make it functionally obsolete. 
New Hampshire legislators voted to abolish the death penalty last year, though Gov. Chris Sununu (R) vetoed that measure.
Nevada and Colorado, two states where Democrats took control in the 2018 midterm elections, are both considering their own bills to end capital punishment.
At the same time, public support for capital punishment has fallen in recent decades.
In 1996, more than three-quarters of Americans said they favored the death penalty for those convicted of capital murder.
Today, just over half, 54 percent, support capital punishment, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year.
Some states are moving in the other direction.
Legislators in Iowa, which ended the death penalty in 1965, are considering a bill to reinstitute the practice.
South Carolina’s state Senate voted last week to allow executions by both the electric chair and firing squad, after medical companies declined to sell the state the chemicals necessary to conduct lethal injections.
A similar bill died in the South Carolina state House last year.
About 2,700 people sit on death rows across the country. 
The vast majority of executions that have taken place since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment in 1976 have taken place in just a handful of states.
Virginia and Oklahoma are the only two states aside from Texas that have executed more than 100 prisoners, though Florida is close to that mark.
But the political situation is changing even in those states where executions are most common.
Voters in recent years have replaced prosecutors in places like Harris County, Texas, home of Houston; Dallas County; and Bexar County, home of Austin, with candidates who have more openly opposed the death penalty.
New prosecutors in Orange County, Calif.; Orange County, Fla.; Philadelphia; and Caddo Parish, Louisiana have all taken stands against the death penalty.
“It’s not just no longer politically beneficial to be harsh on crime without being smart on crime, it’s now also politically dangerous,” Dunham said.
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