With his signature, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty, making his state the 17th, and the 5th in the last 5 years, to do away with capital punishment. The law is not retroactive, so 11 men remain on Connecticut’s death row.
It is surely a sign of progress for the death penalty abolition movement that such a success could occur in the midst of contentious and escalating election year politics. Previous legislative repeal victories have occurred during the more sedate odd-numbered years (New Jersey, 2007; New Mexico, 2009, Illinois, 2011).
And Connecticut’s repeal may not be the only one that takes place in 2012; an initiative to replace California’s death penalty garnered 800,000 petition signatures and is likely to be on the November 6 ballot in our largest state.
Of course, 33 U.S. states still retain capital punishment. But actual use of the death penalty in many of these states is pretty rare, and even in capital punishment hotbeds like Texas or Ohio, sentences and executions are declining and opposition is growing.
Objections to the death penalty vary: for some there is just no place for an irreversible punishment in a mistake-prone judicial system; for others, the death penalty harms victims’ families, turning killers into celebrities and making the families of victims wait years (usually decades) for a promised punishment that most likely will never be implemented; for others it wastes time and money that could be put to better use preventing crimes, or at least solving them (about one-third of homicides go unsolved each year).
For Amnesty International, the death penalty is, simply, a fundamental violation of human rights. Protecting human rights means limiting government power. Ceding to a government the power to kill a prisoner is every bit as wrong (and dangerous) as ceding that government the power to torture. Proceeding with such an absolute punishment despite knowing how error-prone the system is makes the act of execution even more inhumane. And continuing to dump massive amounts of money into the death penalty, when those funds are desperately needed for policies that could genuinely protect society and support crime victims is beyond wasteful.
During Connecticut’s experience with the death penalty there were over 4,000 murders and exactly one execution, of a man who voluntarily gave up his appeals. During the same time, more than 1,000 murders went unsolved. Nationally, in 2008, there were 16,272 murders but just 37 executions, while 5,858 murders went unsolved (more than 150 unsolved homicides for every execution). In a world of shrinking budgets, for the sake of victims’ families and public safety, what should the priorities be?
In California, since 1978, $4 billion has been spent on the death penalty, or over $300 million for each one of that state’s 13 executions. Meanwhile, 46% of the state’s homicides (and 56% of rapes) go unsolved, and due to budget cuts students (particularly students of color) are being locked out of the state’s universities.
Connecticut has done the right thing for human rights, not only by ending the practice of sentencing prisoners to death, but by freeing up resources that can now be focused on policies that may actually do some good. Later this year, voters in California may get the chance to do the same.