While one may find fault with the timing and tactic, Governor Jay Inslee’s announcement earlier this month that he will not allow executions during his term may very will reframe how we debate the future of capital punishment.
Avoiding the more emotional argument of whether executions should be part of our justice system, Governor Insee has calmly laid out why he thinks our capital punishment system is broken:
Since 1981, the year our current capital laws went into effect, 60 percent (19 out of 32) of those with convicted capital offenses in Washington have had their sentences overturned.”When the majority of death penalty sentences lead to reversal, the entire system itself must be called into question.”
The system is expensive. “Studies have shown that a death penalty case from start to finish is more expensive than keeping someone in prison for the rest of their lives – even if they live to be 100 years of age.”
The process takes too long. The crimes of most death row inmates are more than 15 years old. One crime occurred 26 years ago. “While they sit on death row and pursue appeal after appeal, the families of their victims must constantly revisit their grief at the additional court proceedings.”
According to the National Academy of Sciences, “there is no credible evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder.”
The death penalty is not always applied to the most heinous offenders.
The governor’s announcement was met with a mix of positive and negative responses. Notably on the positive side, a Seattle Times editorial: “Capital punishment fails the sober metrics of good public policy” and comments by former Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Utter captured by Brad Shannon of The Olympian. “One of the tragedies of having the death penalty … is that it leaves the public with a feeling that they are safe.”
Also, former Whatcom County Superior Court Judge David Nichols points out in an opinion article that the “death penalty is a lottery of geography–prosecutors in various counties differ widely on whether they seek the death penalty.” Three of the of nine currently on death row committed their crimes in Pierce County.
Aside from the usual “soft on crime” accusations, the main argument against Governor Inslee’s announcement is that he is overstepping his authority by making the announcement that he will commute the sentence to life prior to receiving a death warrant.
“The system we have in our state directs the Legislature to decide whether execution is an appropriate penalty for the most horrendous murders, while the governor decides on a case-by-case basis if that penalty has been applied inappropriately, ” said Senator Steve O’Ban (R-Pierce County), who introduced legislation to require the governor to wait on a recommendation from the state pardons board before making a decision.
Governor Inslee, who is an attorney, and who has many other attorneys available for guidance, will follow our state laws on how to process a death warrant. His announcement was WHEN one crosses his desk, he will commute it to a life sentence without parole.
His point was to draw attention to the fact that the system is not working and it’s time to talk about what should be done about it.
“With my action today I expect Washington state will join a growing national conversation about capital punishment. I welcome that and I’m confident that our citizens will engage in this very important debate.”
For further reading, the Washington State Bar Association issued a very detailed report on the efficacy of the state’s capital punishment.