The new year at our house means, in part, a new subscription to the New York Times. An article on today’s front page about New Jersey (which I most fondly refer to as “the j-hole”) immediately caught my attention. Apparently, a legislative commission has recommended that New Jersey end the death penalty and replace it with life sentences without the possibility of parole–making New Jersey the first state in more than 35 years to drop the death penalty. Granted, there has not yet been a vote on this issue, but according to the article by Laura Mansnerus, the situation looks very promising. The Death Penalty Study Commission report has already been embraced by Governor Jon Corzine, who we know just last month signed into law legislation that allows gay couples all of the rights of legal marriage (except the title).
According to Mansnerus, the report did not find any compelling evidence to support the idea that capital punishment serves a legitimate purpose, and went on to claim that there is increasing evidence that the death penalty “is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.” The findings of the report reflect a growing shift in the public perception of capital punishment:
If the Legislature did abolish the death penalty, it would be the first to do so since the United States Supreme Court halted all executions in 1972 — after which 38 states rewrote their laws to reinstate the practice. New Jersey restored the death penalty in 1982.
But a repeal would be in line with a nationwide retreat from executions, with the annual count declining by nearly half since 1999. A nationwide Gallup telephone poll in 2006 found Americans almost evenly divided when asked whether a death sentence or life without the possibility of parole was a preferable punishment for murder, after years of previous polls in which a majority supported the death penalty.
“We’re in a period of national reconsideration of the death penalty,” said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of political science and law at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “I believe what’s happening in New Jersey will have a tremendously galvanizing effect.”
Richard C. Dieter, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, attributed the sea change to the many wrongful convictions exposed by DNA evidence. “That is the wedge that has made the death penalty difficult to fix,” Mr. Dieter said. “It’s all related to the scientific revolution we’ve had in the last 10 years.”
Though there may be a ways to go before legislation like this is passed, this is still great news. My past experience working with Centurion Ministries (also located in the lovely Garden State) has made issues like wrongful convictions and the death penalty very personal to me. I can’t wait to see this happen.