New Hampshire just abolished the death penalty. Step up, Pa. | Friday Morning Coffee

May 31, 2019 7:10 am

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Not only did New Hampshire become the 21st U.S. state to abolish capital punishment this week, backers were so ardent that they got together the votes to override a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, concluding that society’s ultimate sanction wasn’t a deterrent, but rather was “archaic, costly, discriminatory and violent,” according to NPR.

“The death penalty has been an issue every New Hampshire legislator has grappled with over many years,” Senate President Donna Soucy, a Democrat from Manchester, N.H., said in a statement after the vote, NPR reported. “It was a privilege today to join my colleagues in voting to repeal capital punishment in the Granite State.”

New Hampshire’s Senate voted 16-8 to approve the repeal, which now imposes life without parole, NPR reported. The bill had Republican backing, with one GOP senator saying last month that it would be a “misdeed” to keep capital punishment on the books.

“As I get older, I realized for a fact we’re actually all on death row and it’s just a matter of time before our names get called,” Sen. Harold French said, according to NPR, as he justified his vote.

While it’s a New England state, New Hampshire is hardly a hotbed of liberalism. The Granite State, after all, gave the nation that “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that Tea Party types love to trot out at rallies. If anything, it’s more libertarian in its leanings.

Which raises the question: If New Hampshire can abolish the death penalty, could Pennsylvania be far behind? The odds are long — but they’re not impossible.

For starters, an abolition bill making the rounds of the Republican-controlled state House is being co-sponsored by one of the chamber’s most progressive members, Democratic Rep. Chris Rabb, of Philadelphia, and one of its most conservative, Rep. Frank Ryan, of Lebanon County.

And Ryan’s explanation of his support sounds a whole lot like the one offered by New Hampshire’s French.

“I’m pro-life, which means conception to natural death,” he said, framing his opposition to the death penalty as both practical and moral. “Capital punishment isn’t natural death to me.”

And it’s not like Ryan’s alone.

As we reported last month, Republicans focused on both the bottom-line cost of capital punishment, and its moral implications, are now stepping up to support its abolition.

According to a group calling itself Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, Republican lawmakers in 10 more states — Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, Montana, Missouri, Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington State — are sponsoring death penalty repeal bills.

And according to a 2017 study by the conservative anti-death penalty group, Republican sponsors of death penalty abolition proposals doubled between 2013 and 2016, going from 20 sponsors to 40 sponsors.

And before our conservative readers go all, “Well these are only RINOs in blue or purple states,” consider this: According to the study, “the data show that Republicans in red states are taking on even more leadership than those in blue states.”

“Among the states where Republicans sponsored death penalty repeal bills, more than 40 percent of them (10 states) were red states,” the report reads. “Of the total number of Republican sponsorships of death penalty repeal bills, more than 67 percent were in red states (143 red state sponsorships out of 211 total Republican sponsorships).”

State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Capitol news conference on House and Senate proposals to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

One lawmaker, Sen. Paul Wieland, sponsored an abolition bill in Missouri. It cleared committee, and was debated on the Senate floor, but didn’t become law. Nonetheless, Wieland considered it a win.

Wieland told the study’s authors that that he doesn’t “think it’s a fiscally smart thing that we do as far as dealing with the death penalty. I think we spend a lot more money with the appeals and going through the process of putting people to death than if we just give them life in prison.”

And if there’s  a state that’s ripe for abolition, it’s Pennsylvania.

Largely because of reversals and resentencings, Pennsylvania’s death row population has fallen over the last 16 years, going from 247 inmates in April 2002 to the current 142 inmates, according to data compiled by the Death Row Information Center.

In all, 170 Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have seen their convictions or death sentences overturned in state or federal post-conviction proceedings. The commonwealth’s state courts have reversed an additional 100 death sentences on direct appeal, according to Death Penalty Information Center data. More than 97 percent of the state’s death row inmates have been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted.

And as we’ve reported before, Pennsylvania has carried out just three executions in the nearly half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court again declared the death penalty constitutional, at a combined cost to the taxpayers of $816 million.

In a memo seeking sponsors for his repeal billRabb pointed to an Urban Institute Study of Maryland’s death penalty that concluded that a capital case costs $2 million more than a non-capital case.

“We’re approaching budget season, where we’re pinching pennies,” Rabb told us in April, arguing the state could find far better ways to use the money it spends feeding and housing death row inmates and fighting their appeals. “No study shows it’s a deterrent. Plenty of studies show that it is racist.”

We’re nearly at 50 percent of states that have abolished capital punishment. Neighboring New Jersey is one of them.

While there’s still some distance to go, Pennsylvania lawmakers justifiably take a lot of pride in the strides the state has made on criminal justice reform.

Abolishing capital punishment would be a quantum leap. Let’s see if they’re up for it.

Our Stuff:

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The ranks of Pennsylvania congressional Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry are growing. U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-2nd Districtis the latest to join the chorusWashington Bureau Chief Robin Bravenderreports.

On our Commentary Page: Tara Murtha of the Women’s Law Project argues that Pa’s gender nondiscrimination law could be a bulwark against Trump administration efforts to water down Title IX.

And Steve Herzenberg of the Keystone Research Center argues in favor of a Wolf administration plan to raise the drop-out age for high school students.

The Philadelphia school board approved a $3.4 billion budget on Thursday, a spending increase of 7.1 percent, The Inquirer reports.
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A new lawsuit alleges that a doctor at Lehigh University gave students inappropriate breast examsThe Morning Call reports.
Lawyers for the accused Tree of Life shooter have claimed that the FBI is ‘discouraging’ witnessesThe Post-Gazette reports.
A quarter of Pennsylvania’s underaged drinkers get alcohol from their parentsThe Tribune-Review reports.

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BillyPenn wonders how long it’ll take Philly to transition from ‘Councilman’ to ‘Councilmember.’ explains how police officers are training to become ‘social workers of last resort.’
Politico has the five ways President Trump has remade the Democratic Party.
A Washington D.C. statehood bill is set for a hearing – with the support of House Majority Leader Steny HoyerRoll Call reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 and other electeds, including Attorney General Josh Shapiro; state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery and U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, hold a 12 p.m. rally for reproductive rights at SEPTA’s Ambler train station.

Heavy Rotation.
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Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link. 
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And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.