Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).
Democrats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly have again proposed abolishing the death penalty, reintroducing legislation after Gov. Josh Shapiro announced his refusal to sign execution warrants and urged lawmakers to ban capital punishment rather than reform the system.
Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, and Sens. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, have reintroduced bills to repeal the death penalty in Pennsylvania, describing the capital punishment system as ineffective, costly, and flawed.
“One innocent life taken at the hands of the state is one too many,” Muth and Street wrote in a memo seeking legislative support for their legislation, a companion bill to Rabb’s proposal in the House.
Last week, Shapiro, a Democrat who took office in January, announced that he would not sign execution warrants and would instead use his executive authority to issue a reprieve to anyone with a scheduled execution, something former Gov. Tom Wolf did upon taking office.
But Shapiro went further than his predecessor and called on the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment altogether, saying the state “should not be in the business of putting people to death.” When he campaigned for governor last year, Shapiro said he opposed the death penalty. He supported capital punishment for heinous crimes when he ran for attorney general in 2016. But Shapiro, who previously served on the state pardons board, said his viewpoint has “evolved” over time.
Pennsylvania’s most recent execution took place in 1999. Data from the state Department of Corrections shows that more than 100 men and women have death sentences.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the death penalty is allowed in 27 states. Some states — including New Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia — legislatively abolished capital punishment, replacing it with a life sentence without parole.
“Pennsylvania should join the 23 other states that have abolished the death penalty,” Rabb wrote in a co-sponsorship memo. “Legislators from across the ideological spectrum have coalesced to end capital punishment in their respective states because they acknowledged the various reasons the government putting people to death should not persist.”
Abolishing the death penalty, however, will likely face challenges in the now-divided Legislature, comprised of a House with a razor-thin Democratic majority and a GOP-controlled Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who controls the upper chamber’s voting calendar, said any changes “must appropriately consider the families of murder victims and the critical perspective of law enforcement.”
“Protecting our society while implementing meaningful criminal justice reforms have been ongoing priorities for the Senate Republican Caucus, and we will continue to engage in criminal justice reform discussions this session,” he said in a statement. “Without question, the legal and ethical aspects of the death penalty warrant careful examinations before being used.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, announced on Tuesday that he plans to introduce a bill imposing a mandatory death sentence for anyone over 18 convicted of murdering a police officer.
The proposal comes days after an 18-year-old man was arrested for the fatal shooting of Temple University Officer Christopher Fitzgerald.
Regan said his legislation would amend existing law to eliminate the option for life imprisonment for the first-degree murder of a police officer.
“[Shapiro] has also called for the Legislature to abolish the death penalty, saying: ‘The outcome is irreversible,’” Regan said. “The murder of an innocent life — and in this case, a police officer — at the hands of a criminal is irreversible. The governor should consider those lives, the lives of the men and women who serve and protect, over the lives of those who murder.”
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