New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently announced his decision to ban capital punishment in his state. Now Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. The Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009 would put an immediate halt to federal executions and forbid the use of the death penalty as a sentence for violations of federal law.
I oppose the death penalty because it is inconsistent with basic American principles of justice, liberty, and equality. In January 2007, I introduced the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act to abolish the federal death penalty. I have introduced similar bills in past Congresses in my continued effort to end state-sponsored executions.
Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court, there have been more than 1,000 executions across the country. At the same time, more than 120 people on death row have been exonerated and released from death row. Had those exonerations not taken place, those executions would have represented an error rate of greater than ten percent. That is a horrifying statistic, one that should have us all questioning the use of capital punishment in this country.
I am also concerned about the fact that the death penalty in the United States is unevenly and unfairly imposed. Years of study have shown that the death penalty does little to deter crime, and that defendants’ likelihood of being sentenced to death depends heavily on factors such as whether they are rich or poor. There is also evidence of racial disparities, inadequate counsel and prosecutorial misconduct in death penalty systems across the country.
These problems have led to increased opposition to the death penalty. The number of executions, the number of death sentences imposed, and the size of the death row population have all been decreasing, as a growing number of voices have joined to express doubt about the use of capital punishment in America. In fact, for the first time, a May 2006 Gallup poll reported that more Americans prefer a sentence of life without parole over the death penalty when given a choice. The United States Supreme Court also has issued a range of favorable decisions in the past several years, most notably striking down the death penalty for juveniles, the mentally retarded, and individuals so mentally ill that they cannot fully comprehend why the state is seeking to execute them.
Despite these positive steps, abolishing the death penalty will not be an easy task. It will take patience, persistence, and courage. But we must leave this archaic practice behind. We must reject violence and restore fairness and integrity to our criminal justice system.