Why Connecticut Might End the Death Penalty

Today, 16 states do not practice capital punishment and Connecticut could be the next. Last week, the Connecticut Senate voted in favor of repeal of the death penalty by a vote of 20–16 early after 10 hours of debate. A House debate on repeal is scheduled for this Wednesday.

The bill is prospective and would not impact the 11 men on the state’s death row. It would replace capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sen. Gayle Slossberg, one of the swing votes, gave a passionate speech on the House floor.

Connecticut has only carried out one execution since 1976. Repealing the death penalty would save the state approximately $5 million a year, according to Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Grantees of Open Society Foundations have played an important role in Connecticut’s campaign to end capital punishment including Equal Justice USA (EJUSA). EJUSA is a national, grassroots organization that works intensively with local state-based campaigns to support death penalty repeal.

Since 2009, EJUSA has worked to provide technical support and campaign advising to the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP). Both EJUSA and CNADP have strong leadership, solid organizers, and savvy strategic planning capabilities. The groups have done amazing work, and we applaud their efforts. Building a strong state-based death penalty repeal campaign takes years of work to recruit the best organizers, build trust among local and national partners, nurture emerging grassroots leadership, leverage smart campaign advising from national groups like EJUSA—and of course, the funding support necessary to implement the strategies.

It should not go without noting the visible and growing support of unlikely allies in the Connecticut death penalty repeal campaign, in particular, the voices of murder victims’ family members. This year, nearly 200 murder victims’ family members signed a petition supporting repeal. Many of these family members also took part in public events and a press conference where they spoke out in favor of death penalty abolition. Two of the most influential Senate voices spoke about the victims’ families they had met and why those family members were for repeal. The campaign also reached out to African-American communities, with the support of organizations like the NAACP, another grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

In recent years, caution and skepticism about capital punishment have been running high, resulting in fewer death sentences and executions and increased activity in state campaigns for reform or abolition. Illinois abolished the death penalty last year—and other states have ended capital punishment in recent years including New Mexico (2009), New Jersey (2007), and New York (2004). Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon declared a moratorium on executions.

The number of new death sentences also dropped dramatically in 2011, falling below 100 for the first time in the modern era of capital punishment. Executions have also continued to decline, dropping to 43 in 2011 from 46 in 2010 and from 85 in 2000. These results were achieved through the collaborative efforts of dedicated and skilled activists, lawyers, and advocacy organizations.

Many are hopeful the momentum for death penalty abolition continues.

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