Ending the practice of capital punishment

Feb. 10

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

For the first time in its history, America has a president who is on record favoring complete abolition of the death penalty. President Joe Biden has an opportunity to finally rid America of this barbaric practice by dismantling the federal execution system and creating incentives for states to follow suit. And he could do it with relatively little expenditure of political capital.

Biden, a former death-penalty supporter, has evolved — as has much of America. Public support for the death penalty is lower now than it’s been in more than half a century. DNA technology has exonerated scores of death row inmates since the 1970s. The pattern of proven innocence strongly suggests that others — perhaps many others — have been wrongly executed. Data shows the death penalty continues to be both ineffective as a deterrent and rife with race- and class-based unfairness.

None of this stopped the Trump administration from engaging in a late-term execution spree of federal prisoners, killing 13 of them during its final months in office. The first federal executions in 17 years, they included five during the presidential transition, one of them just days before the inauguration of a new president who had already said he would halt any pending executions. They were the most federal executions conducted in one year since 1896, and the first time since 1889 that an outgoing administration had carried out an execution after losing reelection.

Capital punishment isn’t the hot-button issue it once was. But it’s also less popular than it’s been in decades. Public support for the death penalty hovered around 80 percent as late as the 1990s, but now it sits at just over 50 percent — and well below that when poll respondents are asked to choose between executing murderers or imprisoning them for life without parole.

As the American Civil Liberties Union and scores of other advocacy groups pointed out in a letter to Biden this week, merely declining to carry out federal executions, as the Obama administration did, isn’t enough. Such an “informal federal death penalty moratorium,” they note, won’t prevent future presidents from resuming the killing.

With the stroke of a pen, Biden can and should commute all federal death sentences to life without parole, direct the Justice Department not to seek death sentences going forward and dismantle the federal death chamber at Terre Haute, Indiana. Biden can’t unilaterally clear state-level death rows, but with the federal power of the purse nudging states toward abolition is a realistic goal.

It’s past time for America to join the overwhelming portion of the advanced world that has already declared, in the words of the late Justice Harry Blackmun, that they “no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”


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