Another major progressive victory is within reach in Illinois after the Illinois House voted yesterday to abolish the death penalty. The legislation now goes to the Illinois Senate, which must pass it by the end of next Tuesday, January 11. If you live in Illinois, call your State Senator and urge him or her to vote for SB3539, contact Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and write a letter to the editor of your local Illinois newspaper in support of abolishing the death penalty.
The National Coalition to End the Death Penalty has a great overview of the top ten reasons to abolish the death penalty. The short summary is that the death penalty is barbaric, ineffective, biased, and costly. The evidence shows that the death penalty costs taxpayers more than life in prison without parole, does not deter violent crime, and is marred by significant racial bias and far too frequent ineffective legal representation for those who are charged with capital crimes. Since 1973, at least 138 people have been released from death row after being proven innocent, and there are at least 23 cases in the last century of people who have been killed by the death penalty but are now believed to be innocent of the crimes they were killed for.
Thirty five states and the federal government currently have the death penalty. And of those states, Illinois is perhaps the poster child for both how flawed the death penalty is and the impossibility of fixing it is. As the Chicago Tribune explained in a recent editorial urging abolition:
Lawmakers have had 10 years to reflect — and act — on the failures of a system that sent at least 20 innocent men to death row. Illinois hasn’t executed an inmate since 1999, the year before then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium that continues to this day.
Three years later, Ryan emptied the state’s death row, commuting the sentences of 167 condemned inmates and pardoning four others.
But the system isn’t fixed. Far from it. A flurry of reforms were enacted: The Illinois Supreme Court set minimum standards for attorneys in capital cases and mandated more training for judges. The General Assembly passed a law requiring homicide interrogations to be recorded, to guard against coerced confessions, and created the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to ensure that death penalty trials aren’t compromised for lack of resources.
But lawmakers haven’t taken steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied evenly across geographic or demographic lines, or to prevent wrongful convictions based on errant identifications by witnesses or mistakes at forensic labs. An unintended consequence of the moratorium is that there is less pressure to finish that job. We’re not executing anyone, the reasoning goes, so what’s the harm?
Plenty. Prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty; they may in fact be more likely to do so in marginal cases so they can tap into the trust fund to pay for the trial. Statewide, there have been more than 500 capital cases since the moratorium began. Those cases — typically twice as expensive as noncapital cases — have cost taxpayers more than $100 million and sent 15 prisoners to death row.
Because of these significant flaws with the death penalty, there has been a growing trend of moving away from the death penalty. Since 2007, three states – New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York – have abolished the death penalty. And now we have a chance to continue that trend in Illinois. The Illinois House passed abolition of the death penalty this past Thursday, and the Illinois Senate has until next Tuesday, January 11 to pass the same legislation before the lame duck session ends. The State Senate President, John Cullerton is a death penalty opponent and has promised to bring abolition up for a vote before the session ends.
Now is the time to act to get another state to abolish the death penalty. If you live in Illinois:
* call your State Senator and urge him or her to vote for SB3539,
*contact Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and urge him to sign the death penalty abolition legislation if it passes the General Assembly
* write a letter to the editor of your local Illinois newspaper in support of abolishing the death penalty
If you don’t live in Illinois, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper urging that we abolish the death penalty nationally and/or in your state if you live in one of the thirty four other states that still have the death penalty.
And, as always, let us know if you get a letter to the editor published, reach your elected officials, or have any feedback on this post.