Illinois Finally Ends Its Dance With the Death Penalty

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News today from Springfield, Ill., where Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that ends capital punishment in the Land of Lincoln. The governor also commuted 15 existing death sentences to life without parole. The move came roughly eight years after then-Governor Pat Ryan (now in prison himself) emptied the state's death row after declaring the state's death penalty scheme was "haunted by the demon of error."

Illinois thus becomes the fourth state in four years to purge its death penalty laws. New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York (via court order) also have dropped from their books capital punishment as a sentencing option. According to Richard Dieter, who tracks these things for the Death Penalty Information Center, Illinois is the 16th state to repeal its death penalty protocols -- and more may be on the way.

One new interesting wrinkle in this eternal debate over crime and punishment is, not surprisingly, a financial one. Strapped for cash and budget room, more and more state lawmakers around the country, and even victims rights groups, are understanding more clearly just how expensive capital punishment is relative to its deterrent value. Here's how Dieter put it today in the press release:

Many murder victims' families were among the strongest supporters of the Illinois repeal.  In a letter to the Illinois General Assembly, murder victims' families wrote, "A legal system that wasn't bogged down with committing tremendous resources on capital cases could prosecute and sentence countless other crimes and take dangerous people off the streets before they commit murder. Dollars saved could be put toward counseling for victims of crime or other services we desperately need as we attempt to get on with our lives."  The letter was signed by more than 30 individuals who had loved ones murdered in Illinois.

The high costs of the death penalty were influential in the passage of the repeal.  Conservative Republican Senator Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington said, "We have spent over $100 million of taxpayer money defending and prosecuting death row cases. The death penalty does not make our society safer, I believe. It has been an ineffective and expensive use of our scarce resources."

In the last few months, the death penalty has been under scrutiny in other states as well.  Days after the Illinois General Assembly voted for the repeal, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a Republican state legislator played an influential role in shaping the state's current death penalty statute, stated: 'I have concluded that it is exceedingly difficult for this statute to be administered in a fair and just way... Gov. [John] Kasich and the governors after him, I believe, need to consider commuting all of those sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and I think it's time for Ohio to at least entertain the discussion of whether or not we are well served by having a death penalty.

There are politicians in many states who will never "at least entertain the discussion" about ending capital punishment. But the clear trend is against the practice. Despite its conservative tinge, the Supreme Court has moved in that direction for years. Jurors seem to be suggesting it with their verdicts -- fewer picking death as a sentencing option over life without parole. And now even traditional opponents seem to be hopping on board. Fewer and fewer people, it seems, want to "tinker with the machinery of death."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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