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August 5, 2019

Expressing concern about potential capital distraction from bipartisan criminal justice reform momentum

Laura Arnold has this notable new commentary at Law360 under the headline "Death Penalty Return May Undermine Criminal Justice Reform."  Here are excerpts:

Reasonable minds vociferously differ on, and will continue to debate, the morality of the death penalty. At this critical juncture and moment of opportunity for criminal justice, we must resist the urge to allow this debate to derail large-scale reform.

From a public policy, public safety and cost perspective, the federal death penalty pales in comparison to larger-scale reforms that we could enact today — areas where the White House could add to its bipartisan accomplishments.

There are roughly 171,000 convicted inmates in federal facilities and yet [AG Barr's restarting of executions] decision wastes precious political capital and national attention on a mere 62. Even if we end executions, those 62 will likely never set foot outside a prison for the rest of their lives. Their hearts will continue to beat, but their exile from the living world is immutable.

Meanwhile, there is much greater value in getting the system right for those among the 171,000 federal inmates and nearly 2 million in state and local facilities who have a chance of getting out. Those are the people helped by the First Step Act, and that is where we should continue to focus our efforts....

The death penalty raises a confluence of serious concerns that aren’t easily solved, ranging from constitutional questions to sheer public expense. No wonder that jurisdictions from coast to coast have stopped pursuing capital punishment. The number of death sentences declined by 50% between 2009 and 2015. In fact, only 16 counties out of 3,143 imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.

Many advocates want to lower that number to zero. It’s a debate worth having, both at the federal level and in every state. Jurisdictions should, and will, make their own determinations, as they do on numerous issues of policy relevance.

But now is not the time to stoke this fight. We should focus all our bipartisan efforts on positively affecting the more than 2 million lives currently under incarceration nationwide, and on systemic improvements that will result in fewer people facing incarceration in the first place.

The Trump administration has demonstrated a passion for this mission, and a keen skill at building momentum amid an otherwise chaotic political atmosphere. Let’s not lose that momentum by derailing the conversation.

I very much like the message and spirit of this commentary, and long-time readers know I have long discussed in various settings the various problems I see from advocates and others giving so much attention to capital cases. (Some examples of my writings in this vein include A Capital Waste of Time? Examining the Supreme Court’s “Culture of Death,” 34 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 861 (2008) (available here) and Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. (2008) (available here).)

But, at the same time, I am not sure AG Barr's decision to try to kick-start the death penalty necessarily will or should have to negatively impact other bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts.  Though this may be wishful thinking, one might hope that the recent death penalty move by the Trump Administration may help mollify the "tough-and-tougher" crowd (likely Senators Cotton and Kennedy and certain pundits) who always pose challenges for further federal reforms.  

In months ahead, robust engagement with the federal death penalty will be taking place in federal courts, and I think it somewhat unpredictable whether and how this litigation will impact broader criminal justice reform politics.  But this commentary rightly flags an issue worth watching in the months and years ahead.

August 5, 2019 at 05:36 AM | Permalink

Comments

Your wishful thinking is as useful as your declared ambivalence about the death penalty. Trump's latest declaration is as usual a confused rant - on the one hand recognising that mental health and gun ownership is a substantial part of the problem re mass shootings, and on the other, claiming that the primary response should be the death penalty. So the State should kill or imprison all those with mental health problems predicted to be a potential danger of such shootings, and all those who commit them (in spite of mental health issues)? The man lives in cuckoo land.

Posted by: peter | Aug 5, 2019 11:06:43 AM

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