Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today which made his state the 16th to abolish its death penalty (Take action to thank him now). The bipartisan bill, which passed the state legislature in January, commutes the sentences of Illinois’ 15 death row inmates to life without parole, and reallocates the funding previously slotted for capital defense to law enforcement training and increased restitution for victims’ families.
Quinn’s decision is the culmination of years of public debate that has been raging since at least 2000 when then Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. For Governor Ryan, the state’s system looked increasingly broken, and the probability that innocents would be executed was too great to keep moving forward with capital punishment absent serious modifications. In the following eleven years, the state created two study commissions and attempted to implement multiple reforms to resolve these concerns, but found that such efforts were both ineffective and too costly. Governor Quinn’s decision marks an awareness of the diminishing returns intrinsic to the already extremely expensive system, as attempts to make capital punishment ‘fair’ were always going to be more costly and less effective than abolition. As Quinn put it, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.” He went on to note that in a world of limited resources, it was wiser policy to take “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system [and spend them] on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.”
Quinn did not make this decision lightly, as shown by the two-month wait between the bill’s passage and his signing it into law. He carefully considered arguments from supporters and opponents, taking a particularly hard look at the feelings of the family members of murder victims. In his statement, the Governor acknowledged the unimaginable heartache that accompanies losing a loved one and made clear that he understood and could not blame families for desiring retribution. His decision to sign the bill, however, was motivated by numerous conversations with families who felt that the death penalty only prolonged their pain and suffering. By ensuring that murderers are locked away for life, Illinois’ policy will help victims avoid years of painful hearings while also providing the state with the funding necessary to prevent similar crimes before they happen.
Illinois decision to abolish should be understood as part of a national trend away from capital punishment, as it is the fourth state in as many years to end its death penalty. New Jersey and New York both removed all their prisoners from death row as of 2007, with New Mexico following suit two years later. Today finds the fewest number of states’ practicing capital punishment since its reinstatement in 1978, and it appears as though the number could drop even lower as several other states are currently considering abolition with bills in various stages of debate in Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.
Governor Quinn’s decision should provide inspiration for death penalty opponents nation-wide, as his actions show that there is nothing inevitable about capital punishment. As concerns over the cost and fairness of the death penalty rise, public opinion has swung increasingly against it, suggesting that a post-death penalty America may soon be a reality. Illinois is not the first or last step in the process, but it is an important one nonetheless, as each victory adds momentum to the push for more effective alternatives to capital punishment.
Posted in Blog, CCV/Victims, Cost, Innocence
Comments are now closed for this item.
Comment by Margo Schulter, Mar 9th, 2011 10:31pm
Please let me add one small detail which is a tribute to
Governor Quinn. According to reports, the bill itself left
open the fate of the 15 Death Row prisoners in Illinois;
but the Governor very wisely explained that he was
commuting their sentences to life without parole: "I felt
once the decision was made to sign the law abolishing the
death penalty, it should be abolished for all." The
legislative sponsors were, of course, delighted by the
Governor's decision to grant these commutations promptly.
And there's certainly inspiration for California in the
Governor's moving focus on the victims of crime, declaring
that the "family of Illinois" would reach out to the
families of murder victims, many of whom participated in
the dialogue leading up to this momentous day for justice
and human rights. The "family of California" and the
families of murder victims among us deserve nothing less.