The Washington Legislature (the Senate at least) is closely divided on whether to keep capital punishment as it is, or instead to follow those states and countries that impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson introduced legislation last year to abolish the death penalty in the state.
Inslee has not signed a death warrant since taking office. That’s because four years ago, he announced that no executions would happen on his watch, though a future governor could reverse his moratorium.
This brings the Legislature to wrestle with a problem that should be of great interest statewide.
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Inslee’s and Ferguson’s efforts have gained traction, and last week Senate Bill 6052 was approved 26-22. It has been sent to the House, where it is scheduled for consideration in the House Judiciary Committee.
For decades the Herald generally held to the line that we elect public officials to decide most important issues for themselves. If those officials make a big mistake or, in some cases, too many mistakes, the people have the power to vote them out at the next opportunity.
We also hold, as demonstrated rarely in the past, that some questions are too important for the Legislature to decide.
This is one of them.
It has been 43 years since the Legislature last put the question on capital punishment to the people, who decided overwhelmingly to keep it.
Since Washington citizens approved the death penalty by a vote — even though it was long ago — we think lawmakers should allow citizens to weigh in again on the issue.
The world has changed over the past several decades.
Among those changes is a widespread recognition now, barely noticed in 1975, that the death penalty — indeed incarceration itself — is applied unevenly across racial lines and some on death row were convicted on faulty (sometimes false) evidence.
In addition, the cost of keeping an inmate on death row for a number of years can cost the state millions more in tax money than if that same convicted killer was sentenced to life in prison. The appeal process is time consuming and expensive for those sentenced to death.
When the state takes a life, it is forever. No number of appeals, no reversals and no discovery that someone else committed the crime can change that.
At the same time, some citizens who oppose the death penalty on humane grounds are willing to make an exception in the case of a mass murderer or person convicted of killing a loved one.
Both those who are in favor of the death penalty and those who oppose it care about the victims. All have sympathy for the grieving loved ones.
There also are those intent on keeping the death penalty because they are convinced it is a deterrent to keep others who fear execution from committing murder. Others simply don’t trust the criminal justice system.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said he was against SB 6052 because he had “no trust in the judiciary that life without parole really means life without parole,” according to The Associated Press.
This is not an issue that horse-trading on the floor of the Legislature between political parties can resolve. People’s positions on issues change. Is this one that has people thinking differently than in 1975? We should find out.
We believe the most enduring and reasoned solution would be a referendum of all voters in our state, and, we would like to see it happen on Nov. 6.