Almost imperceptibly, and despite nominal support nationally for capital punishment, states are, one by one, abolishing the death penalty, citing the risks of executing innocents, the inherent biases in the system, and the extreme costs. Legislatures in New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois have abolished the death penalty in recent years, and the courts in New York found it in violation of the state Constitution. Now, Connecticut is poised to become the 17th state to ban the death penalty, after a successful vote last night in the state Senate.
State senators voted 20-16 in favor of a death penalty repeal bill after about 11 hours of impassioned floor debate.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is considered to have a high level of support, and then to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who has said he would sign it into law.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said he was not surprised by the bill’s passage in the Senate. He said vote turned out exactly as he had expected.
“I think it is a pivotal step,” he said. “It moves us towards a more enlightened posture on the issue and puts us more in line with other New England states.”
The law would be forward-looking, and would not immediately empty Death Row. There are 11 inmates sentenced to death in Connecticut, and those sentences would not change. But courts would no longer be able to sentence felons in Connecticut to death after the bill gets signed into law. The sternest sentence would now be life without the possibility of parole. This could put the law eventually in jeopardy if and when those 11 Death Row inmates appeal their sentences. But it was the condition to get the bill passed in the more conservative (for Connecticut) state Senate.
Connecticut’s version of the death penalty really only existed in name only. They have carried out one execution, back in 2005, in the last 51 years. Nationally, we’ve seen an average of 44 executions a year since 2007, a significant drop from the 1990s.
In a statement, Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called the vote “courageous and historic,” but also cited the emerging trend against the death penalty in the states. “Nationally, there is an increasing willingness to replace the death penalty with alternative sentences, such as life without parole, that reduce the risk of executing the innocent and better serve victims’ families. In the past decade there has been a significant decline in new death sentences and executions, reflecting widespread frustration with capital punishment across the country.”
In these times of strained budgets, cost has also become a factor. Maintaining Death Row and managing the death penalty system is prohibitively expensive. A ballot measure this November in California will seek to abolish the death penalty, and one of their major selling points is the billion-dollar-a-year cost. Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates that the death penalty repeal bill will immediately save $850,000 a year, and that the number could balloon to $5 million a year over time.
Nationally, polling shows that the public still supports the death penalty, but by smaller and smaller margins. So it makes sense that the more liberal states have moved to abolish it in recent years.