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Connecticut’s Death Penalty Message

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Posted on Apr 29, 2012

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

GREENWICH, Conn.—Since the 2010 elections, the activism of newly empowered conservative and Republican state legislatures has gained national attention with their wars on public employee unions, additional restrictions on abortion and new barriers to voting.

Against this backdrop, the little state of Connecticut has loomed as a large progressive exception. Last year, it became the first state to require employers to grant paid sick leave. It also enacted a law granting in-state tuition to students whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as young children.

And last week, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy signed a law repealing the state’s death penalty. There are now 17 states without capital punishment, Illinois having joined the ranks last year. What happened in Connecticut brings home the flaw in seeing everything that has happened in the states since the midterm vote as embodying a steady shift rightward.

Where they hold power, progressives have also been using their states as laboratories, and Malloy is part of an impressive group of mostly smaller-state Democratic governors who have combined a moderate, business-friendly style with progressive policymaking. Their ranks include, among others, Govs. Jack Markell in Delaware, Martin O’Malley in Maryland, John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and outgoing Gov. John Lynch in New Hampshire.

After the 2012 election, a key front in the battle for America’s political future will involve how the various left and right experiments in the states are judged. Aggressive conservatives such as Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio are in the headlines now, and the recall Walker faces will keep him there for a while. But there will be a quieter and more comprehensive reckoning down the road. 

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Part of this reckoning will be a remarkable pivot in the politics of the death penalty, the premier issue on which an overwhelming consensus favoring what’s taken to be the conservative side has begun to crumble.

In the 1980s and ’90s, capital punishment was a staple of Republican campaigns against a handful of liberals who bravely stuck with their opposition to the ultimate punishment. George H.W. Bush used the issue effectively against Democrat Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, and so did Republicans in their 1994 electoral sweep, notably in defeating three-term Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in New York. And no wonder: In 1994, support for the death penalty hit its peak of 80 percent nationwide.

But a Gallup survey last fall showed how much things have changed: Support for capital punishment was down to 61 percent. Among the many reasons for the drop are a decline in crime rates, which has increased public confidence in the criminal justice system, and a stream of reports casting doubt on the guilt of some who were executed. In addition, significant groups of libertarian Republicans and opponents of abortion have crossed to the repeal side. An important test of the new politics of capital punishment will come this November in a California death penalty referendum.

For all this, it still takes political courage to end capital punishment. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week as Malloy signed the death penalty repeal found 62 percent of Connecticut voters still favoring executions of those convicted of murder, with only 30 percent opposed. Just 29 percent approved of the Legislature’s handling of the issue, while 51 percent disapproved.

But (and it’s a very important but) support for the death penalty, in Connecticut and elsewhere, is not as robust as it looks. When Quinnipiac asked a different question—“Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder, the death penalty, or life in prison with no chance of parole?”—only 46 percent favored the death penalty. An equal number chose life without parole. Death penalty opponents have an opening they haven’t had for some time.

Moreover, voters aren’t as agitated by the issue as they once were. Only 37 percent of Connecticut voters told Quinnipiac that the issue would be “extremely” or “very” important to how they cast their ballots in legislative elections.

Malloy is under no illusions about the strong residual opposition to repeal. When he signed the repeal bill last Wednesday, he did so with little ceremony, carefully observing that “many people whom I deeply respect, including friends and family ... believe the death penalty is just.”

Nonetheless, what Malloy did was historic, and it was a sign that despite the dreary polarization that characterizes our debates, American politics are still capable of springing surprises.


E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group


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By gerard, May 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

3am mystic: Your comment is very moving.  At the end you raised the subject of empathy, much discussed among psychologists these days, particularly since the alarm raised among at least 2/3 of “established” pshychologists and psychoanalysts by the Guantanamo horrors and their easy dismissal, largely without challenge. Fear plus anger makes a strange beast, and very little research has been done—probably because putting money into that would at the same time probably take money out of war rather sooner than later.
  Ordinarily, people don’t stop to think much about empathy and related psychological issues.  it is as if people don’t want to know too much about what goes on in their heads—perhaps based on too many childhood horror stories—both literary and literal. (My bete noir in that regard was “Blue Beard” which was forced nn me by a non-empathetic relative.  And left a permamnent scar.
  Though we don’t know what it is or how to transmit, we do have some experiential knowledge about how it is injured or destroyed—and what worst results follow.  We know that empathy, once embedded and experienced, tends to be very persistent, and its forcible destruction (via training in violence) injures that strange inner faculty we call “soul”—which we don’t know much about, either.
  Since the present “culture” in the U.S. is rapidly
robbing people of empathy (as evidenced by the growing lack of community, social solidarity and the increasing evidences of cruel behavior and the mistreatment of children and women, it seems that concentrating on the study of empathy might be a very timely and valuable occupation.
  I predict it will take a lot more than hope. Please contribute whatever you can to this vital subject. Do you know of any “empatny blogs” that are discussing personal experiences with it, either childhood or otherwise?  Some time ago I read “War and the Soul” written by PhD. who has done a lot of
soul healing” rellatd to empahty pose-Vietnam. Also David Kennedy has written a book based on his city gang experiences, “Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship and the End of Violence.” So lots is going on in this field, I know, but I’m not up to date at all on it.  I’d appreciate anything you have to share as I have a lifetime interest in the subject, but am completely untrained.

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By M Henri Day, April 30, 2012 at 10:54 am Link to this comment

Since the brief moratorium in capital punishment resulting from the US Supreme Court decision in Furman vs Georgia in 1972 ended in 1976, seventeen states have abolished capital punishment. At that pace, perhaps this punishment, which is certainly cruel, if not particularly unusual, will be abolished in that country in another 70 years, i e, in the unlikely event that any examples of H sapiens sapiens are around to notice….

Henri

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By 3am mystic, April 30, 2012 at 9:50 am Link to this comment

I wish to approach this subject from a personal and emotional level.

I have always been against the death penalty…I also have a family member who commited murder.

Once when I stated that I am against capital punishement a co-worker asked me, without knowing my family history, “What would you do if someone killed one of your family?”  I fired back, “What if one of your family did the killing?”  I guess it was the look in my eye, but my co-worker thought it not best to go there.

I tend to think that so many are for the death penalty simply because it does not affect them personally to any degree.  It is like fighting a war with an all volunteer army.  If it is someone else’s son or daughter doing the fighting, or if it is someone else’s city and home being to reduced to rubble and death, then it becomes easy to be a cheer-leader.  It is when our own are facing death, or causing the death, that our minds feel like they are being torn and shredded.

Call me naive, but I would like to believe that capital punishment is losing support because individuals of our society are learning to walk in another person’s shoes.  In spite of the Tea Party and a few others who have not yet learned how to think, people in our country are coming face to face with victims of bullying and victims of hate crimes toward gays and other minorities. And maybe, just maybe, ordinary citizens are tired of death, even the legal kind, and are saying under their breath, “Enough’s enough”.  As you can tell, I do like to HOPE.

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By Marian Griffith, April 30, 2012 at 2:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@SoTexGuy

Archie Bunker was wrong (even for a fictional character and intentionally written as reactionary).

There is plenty of research showing that threat of punishment rarely prevents crimes. The prospect of death penalties has not stopped the USA from having one of the highest murder percentages in the world. The very harsh indeed punishments for even minor crimes has not stopped those either.

The problem here is that much crime is commited without much forethought. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” is the motivation for a significant percentage of all crimes. A lot (if not most) murders happen not because of planning but because something went wrong, panic happened and the murderer had a weapon at hand. Career criminals rarely think they will get caught and because of that are not concerned about the penalty; or they are genuinely unable to understand the consequences because of a (temporary) psychological condition. Teenagers have that in a huge dose, but part of it persists in adults as well. And even ordinary people are trained to NOT think about risks and potential consequences of their actions. They have to because if they would they could not function. Every time you step out of your house you run a risk. Driving to work every day sooner or later you will have an accident, and it may be a fatal one. People die every day from tripping while going down the stairs. These are unavoidable risks and we all train ourselves to ignore them.
People do things that they know are bad for them but will not stop anyway because the bad things are a long way off and may never happen. This is especially true for Americans who are raised to be incurably optimistic.
It is no great surprise that this same attitude also affects criminals, and why harsher punishment will not do much to deter crime. The only thing keeping somebody from commiting a crime is if they do not -want- to.
Punishment should be corrective, because it is never going to be really succesful as preventative.

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By SoTexGuy, April 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

What’s going on is a general and increasing mistrust of our Justice system.. and that’s what this vote most exposes. Guilt or innocence are things to be bought or sold or bartered for political advantage..  We have a multi-level system where wealth and privilege pre-determine what you can be tried for and what your potential penalty may be.

As Archie Bunker said.. ‘capital punishment may not deter crime, it sure deters the criminal’. There’s some wisdom in that, given our revolving door penitentiary system.

Really, I don’t give a darn whether we have the death penalty or not. What I want to see is the guilty punished, the innocent exonerated and no exceptions.. Dionne applauds little Connecticut for eschewing the ultimate penalty.. BU-Yah!

Now what about those Obama drone strikes and all the ‘collateral damage’ involved? .. or the extra-judicial killings of practically anyone who runs afoul of our domestic LE thugs .. you can be killed tonight for ‘resisting the order of an officer’ Sounds serious! but I’ll bet if you were allowed to go in front of a court the maximum penalty would not be DEATH..

The Lib/Prog pundit author is out of touch with life in this America.

Adios!

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By ouchosparks, April 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

American politics, at the institutional level, hardly
spring surprises, unless you are a dimwitted pundit
(even the dimwit allows that the cited progressives are
business friendly…that says it all).  Our Puritanism,
and love of violence, will insure that capital
punishment is here to stay, even if a few states ban it
now and then for a while.

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By gerard, April 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm Link to this comment

Suggestion: All proven guilty of first degree murder consigned to life in a “prison-educational complex” operated like any institution of higher learning where prisoners are required to choose two fields of interest—one occupational, one cultural—a major and a minor. 
  Thenk provided with minimum standards for health,  and recreation.  Prisoners required to pursue a set course of instruction to learn missing basic skills, then on to four or six years of formal compulsory education in chosen fields, academic or technical/ scientific.Special abilities given special attention.
  After graduation, work in chosen fields either in research and invention, or in production and development, or in teaching and training of junior prisoners.  Space, time and encouragement provided with all products and results dedicated to society in places where they are most needed and would be most appreciated. Payment awarded to stand for restitution and forgiveness. Liberal visitation and communication privileges.  Progress reports issued regularly. Suggestions for improvements cordially received.
  Similar institutions modified for care of lesser offenders.
  Results:  Mental and physical health. Improved social attitudes and understanding. Self-respect. Happier families and outside relationships to the degree possible. Experiential evidences of success.Incremental benefits for entire society. Probably far less expensive than maintaining the present retaliatory anti-social system.
  Absolutely nothing prevents it except habituated medieval fears and attitudes about “punishment” “eye for an eye” vengeance and Old Testament tribal cruelty.
  This is one of the main social institutions that the entire human race is being forced to rethink.
  Yes, we could!

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