Switching off the death penalty

This month, Kansas considers dropping the death penalty. It should join the national trend and abandon capital punishment.

This month, the Kansas Legislature is expected to begin hearings on a bill to repeal the death penalty. If the bill passes, Kansas will become the third state in three years to eliminate capital punishment – another encouraging milestone on the way to ending this practice in America.

Last March, New Mexico replaced the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole, as did New Jersey in 2007. If Kansas follows, it will become the 16th state to forgo executions as a criminal justice tool.

The nation has been pulling back from sanctioned killing as a punishment for heinous crimes. In 2009, 106 people were handed death sentences – a record low since 1976, when the US Supreme Court upheld capital punishment.

Last year, the American Law Institute, which put in place the intellectual underpinnings of the modern capital justice system, abandoned its work in this field. The Supreme Court relied heavily on the institute’s framework when it decided to uphold capital punishment. But the institute has concluded that it’s not possible to ensure “a minimally adequate system for administering” the death penalty. A review for the institute cited many problems, including a lack of fairness.

Practical considerations are moving states – and juries – away from capital punishment. A big factor is cost, driven up by the lengthy appeals process and the expense of investigation and litigation when a life is at stake. Kansas estimates, for example, that the median cost of a death penalty case is 70 percent higher than for a murder case where the death penalty is not given.

Juries are also more cautious about mistaken convictions (139 people sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973). The Supreme Court, too, has narrowed the field of those who may be executed, eliminating juveniles and those diagnosed as mentally retarded. And the death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime.

But the moral argument against capital punishment should not be forgotten. A government’s job is to preserve life, not compound a terrible wrong by taking another life. A death sentence cuts off the opportunity for redemption and leans on an outdated concept of justice based on revenge.

The practical concerns spurring the anti-death-penalty trend are important, but circumstances can change. The moral imperative does not.

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