Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Evolving Standards of Decency: Who's Next?

I have previously written about the phrase, "evolving standards of decency," which is used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual.  While the Supreme Court has so far refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," there has been positive movement on the state level, as the death penalty is increasingly seen as too arbitrary, too fallible and too costly to remain on the books.

New Jersey (in 2009) and New Mexico (in 2007) are the states that most recently abolished the death penalty,  and now Illinois seems on the verge of doing the same.  Both Illinois state houses approved a bill to repeal the death penalty and reallocate the money saved to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which will assist victims' families and improve law enforcement.  It comes down to Governor Quinn to sign the bill into law and make Illinois the 16th state without capital punishment.  He has until March 18th to make a decision, at which time the bill will automatically become law.  (It is still worth calling and urging him to sign: Springfield office 217-782-6830, Chicago office 312-814-2121.)

And after Illinois?  How about Montana?  On February 14th, the Montana state Senate passed a bill to repeal the death penalty.  The bill now goes to the Republican-dominated House, where it faces an admittedly tougher road.  Then there's Connecticut, where last month more than two dozen family members of murder victims went to the state capitol and urged abolition of the death penalty.  The state legislature is considering a repeal bill, and a judiciary committee hearing will be held this month.  Or perhaps it will be Maryland, where, as a recent editorial in the Baltimore Sun suggested, an "unexpected confluence of events" has given Governor O'Malley a shot at abolishing the state's death penalty. 

Politicians no longer need fear taking a stand against the death penalty as was demonstrated in California, where a slate of anti-capital punishment candidates won election in November.  (See Tough on Crime.)  This is because it is becoming increasingly apparent that a true "tough on crime" stance is one that argues that the death penalty has not made us safer and that the money spent every year on the death penalty could be far more productively used to put more cops on the street and to fund programs which aim to stop recidivism.  Given the extraordinary cost of maintaining the death penalty -- fiscal as well as human -- it is just a matter of time before more and more states come to the conclusion that they don't need the death penalty. The sooner the better.

[Related posts:  California's Dysfunctional Death Penalty; Unevolved and Indecent, The Year in Death, Ending the Cycle of Violence in the Land of Lincoln]

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