THE WASHINGTON STATE legislature is now seriously considering passing a law that would abolish capital punishment in our state. Senate Bill 5372, and its companion House Bill 1504, would abolish the death penalty and instead mandate, for appropriate sentences, life without parole. The legislators who support this legislation believe it is not merely a fist in the air; for perhaps the first time the legislation has a legitimate chance of passing both legislative chambers and being signed into law by Governor Inslee.
This is not the first time our state’s legislature has tried to eradicate the death penalty: some version of the currently pending legislation has been introduced by a legislator several times before. But this year there is a momentum unlike during years past; this year there is something apparently crucial at stake: money.
State legislators argue that our death penalty is too expensive. It costs the state of Washington about $800,000 more to legally prosecute a death penalty case than a non-death penalty case. When our state is failing to make ends meet, the financial cost benefit analysis that favors eliminating the death penalty is certainly attractive. The money saved from prosecuting and administering death penalty cases would, for example, undoubtedly be better spent on such things as public education.
As beneficial as it would be for our state to dismantle its gallows (yes, Washington is one of two states that permits killing the condemned by “hanging by the neck until the defendant is dead”), there is something unsettling about the fact that mere dollars and cents offer the legislation’s best chance at success. Apart from any immediate budget concerns, there are compelling social, democratic, and human rights reasons for abolishing the death penalty that do not bend in winds of economic change.
For example, the death penalty provides very little, if any, social benefit. The death penalty does not deter crime as proponents claim: murder occurs much less in states that do not impose the death penalty than in states that do.
And it appears the fallibility of our justice system is too great to implement the irreversible penalty of death. The death penalty was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, but the ban was lifted by the Court in 1976. Since then, at least 130 people have been released from death row after being exonerated by favorable evidence. These figures show that states have, undeniably, executed innocent people who were wrongly convicted.
Perhaps the most persuasive reason to abolish the death penalty is that states should not be permitted to grant itself the right to take a person’s life. State execution, as Albert Camus described it, is more than just a death; it is in fact a perpetuation of the same violent conduct that capital punishment is supposedly meant to prevent. Except that when a state kills a person it completes the act with ceremony and fanfare: in Washington State, the condemned who die by lethal injection are ritually strapped to a chair at the witching hour on the day of their death and placed before viewing witnesses that some may consider and example of morbid voyeurism.
These are all convincing reasons that appeal to higher standards of moral justice that should motivate our legislators to abolish capital punish. And when it does occur, the reason our legislators abolish the death penalty will matter. Indeed, consider this: if the legislation passes this year, will the legislature revive the death penalty when our coffers are once again full and the added savings are no longer needed?
Our state – and our government at-large – should rise above the conduct it condemns and not sink to the same heinous level of murderers. That our legislators are motivated now more than ever to abolish the death penalty simply to save a buck is, well, almost criminal.
Trent Latta can be reached at TrentLatta@gmail.com.