In a career about-face, President Joe Biden vowed in the 2020 campaign to end the federal death penalty and provide incentives for capital punishment states to abolish their death-penalty statutes.
Biden, who took office Jan. 20, is off to a slow and unconvincing start. Up to now, his much-touted criminal justice reforms have been all talk.
Still, if Biden acts immediately and decisively, he can effectively scrap the federal death penalty, and lead a just and prudent campaign to end capital punishment in the nation’s 28 death-penalty states, including Pennsylvania.
More problems, less support
The time is right to abolish this costly, ineffective, and barbaric practice. It has made the United States a moral outlier among nations, especially U.S. allies. Increasingly, the United Nations and other agencies have made the death penalty an international human-rights barometer that isolates the United States.
National public support for the death penalty is the lowest in 50 years, with 60 percent of Americans preferring mandatory life sentences to executions. U.S. Supreme Court justices have gradually narrowed how courts can apply capital sentences. Among other things, they have outlawed executing prisoners with intellectual disabilities and those who committed their crimes as children.
In addition, local, state, and federal prosecutors, mindful of numerous DNA exonerations since 1990, are trying fewer capital cases, partly to avoid executing innocent people.
None of that stopped the administration of former President Donald Trump in July from lifting the moratorium on federal executions and overseeing the late-term executions of 13 death row prisoners. The first federal executions in 17 years revived a dormant public debate on capital punishment.
Partly because of that appalling execution spree, which included a mentally disabled prisoner, Biden’s supporters urged the new president to sign executive actions on his first day that renewed a moratorium on federal executions and commuted the death sentences of 50 federal prisoners to mandatory life.
Biden also plans to work with Congress to abolish the federal death penalty statute, preventing future presidents from resuming executions. He wants to use financial incentives and the president’s bully pulpit to persuade states with capital punishment to ditch their death penalty statutes.
It’s an ambitious agenda. So far, Biden has failed to act, even though he can suspend federal executions, literally, with a stroke of the pen.
Biden signed more than 50 executive actions in the early days of his administration, including imposing a mask mandate on federal property and reversing Trump’s travel ban targeting largely Muslim countries. None of those actions, however, affected the death penalty.
Urging states to act
The 28 capital punishment states hold 2,500 death row prisoners, including 150 in Pennsylvania. Without cleaning up the death penalty statute in his own backyard, Biden can hardly lean on states to abolish theirs.
Quick action on the federal death penalty is especially important for Pennsylvania and three other states with governor-imposed moratoriums. Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, told The Herald editorial page that Wolf plans to extend Pennsylvania’s death penalty moratorium, until his term ends in January 2023.
Executions in Pennsylvania, however, could resume after that. Meantime, dozens of more people await trials in which prosecutors are seeking death, despite egregious racial disparities and other troubles with Pennsylvania’s death penalty.
Abolishing death penalty laws should be an easy sell. Capital punishment exacts tens of millions of dollars annually in extra legal expenses for longer trials, additional lawyers and expert witnesses, and prolonged appeals.
No evidence supports, or even suggests, capital punishment deters violence or decreases murders. In fact, murder rates are higher in death penalty states. Moreover, with DNA technology, the possibility of conviction errors is no longer debatable. And unlike life sentences, executions are not reversible.
As a criminal justice reformer, Biden, a former proponent of the death penalty, cuts an improbable figure. He staunchly supported the Draconian 1994 Crime Bill and the nation’s failed war on drugs in the 1980s. Both led to enormous increases in U.S. prison populations, especially among AfricanAmericans.
No one can know whether Biden’s about-face stems from political expediency or, at 78, the slow maturation of wisdom. Either way, Biden will have to go a long way to make up for the regressive policies he previously supported.
Acting immediately to suspend federal executions would make a good start.