Illinois governor Pat Quinn has signed legislation making Illinois the fourth U.S. state to end the death penalty in just five years. Sixteen states in total have abandoned it, and momentum towards repeal is accelerating nationally.
In 2009, repeal bills were pending in 11 states. This year Connecticut, Kansas, and Montana are also considering repeal. Americans are coming to realize that the death penalty is ineffective and insufficient to support victims in the aftermath of murder. In a 2010 Lake Research Partners report, a majority of Americans favored alternative punishments for murder, such as life without parole, over the death penalty.
Additionally, more criminal justice and law enforcement professionals are speaking out against the punishment. In a national survey of police officers [pdf], respondents ranked the death penalty last as a law enforcement tool. Many said that the money states waste on the death penalty could be put to better use funding safety equipment, training, and hiring more police. Most recently, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, the chief architect of the death penalty statute in Ohio, stated in a published article that capital punishment should be repealed because it is not fairly or evenly applied.
Illinois has played a unique role in the death penalty discussion in the U.S., giving repeal there a special significance. In 2000, then-governor George Ryan halted executions in the state after evidence emerged that innocent people were being sentenced to die.
In one case, Anthony Porter came within 48 hours of execution before a court investigated his mental competency. (Porter’s IQ of 51 made him ineligible for execution). Meanwhile, journalism students at Northwestern University took up Porter’s case as a class project. They uncovered evidence of Porter’s innocence that shocked the nation. By the time Governor Ryan declared a moratorium, 12 people had been executed in Illinois and 13 had been found innocent and exonerated. That ratio—more innocent than guilty—horrified him.
The Illinois moratorium changed the conversation about the death penalty across the U.S. as more stories of wrongful convictions in other states were discovered, and brought to the public’s attention. Death penalty supporters and opponents alike were troubled that innocent people could be executed. More than two-dozen states considered imposing moratoria of their own in the years that followed.
This focus on how the death penalty is working in practice—rather than whether it is right or wrong in theory—created new space for people with a variety of views on the issue to come together and learn more. Moreover, the more they learned, the less they liked what they saw. Today, those seeking policy changes regarding capital punishment represent a diverse array of perspectives, including victims’ families and law enforcement. Many who still support the death penalty in principle nevertheless have come to believe that in practice it cannot work.
Illinois’ own experience since the moratorium was instituted sheds new light on all that we have learned about the death penalty in the last 30 years. Governor Ryan’s study commission released its report [pdf] in 2002 and recommended 85 different reforms the state needed to make to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person. The legislature imposed a number of reforms (though not all 85), and set up a second study commission to determine whether the reforms worked. The new commission worked for seven years and released a report in 2010 finding that the flaws in Illinois’ death penalty remained.
The Illinois experience is instructive. Illinois has had a moratorium on executions, two study commissions, and significant reforms were enacted. Yet the cost of maintaining capital punishment increased to over a $100 million, the amount spent on the state’s Capital Trust Fund—which covers the expenses of death penalty case litigation—even without executions. That figure is only a fraction of the amount Illinois has spent on maintaining capital punishment.
Wrongful convictions continued, making Illinois the state with the second highest number of death-row exonerees in the nation (20) after Florida (23). It does not seem possible to reduce these costs and significantly curtail the notoriously lengthy process in capital sentencing, which takes its toll on the families of murder victims, regardless of their views on capital punishment.
At the end of the day, states that retain the death penalty will have to ask, “Is it worth it?” If they are candid, we expect to see more states joining the ranks of New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and now Illinois, which, having carefully considered the question, emphatically answered “No.”