Politically Uncorrected: Pennsylvania’s Death Penalty Lingers On
Today it’s pensions, liquor privatization and educational funding. These white-hot issues pervade the policy debate in Pennsylvania, sucking so much political oxygen out of the air that other issues seem virtually invisible.
Will pensions, liquor and educational funding ever go away? Will they ever be resolved?
A better question might be: 20 years from now will they even be remembered?
In fact, it was only 20 years ago that crime dominated the politics and monopolized the policy debates in the state capitol. Tom Ridge (R) had been elected governor after a campaign that made crime the central issue in the 1994 gubernatorial race. Once elected, Ridge fulfilled a campaign promise to call a special session of the legislature, one that led to the passage of two-dozen tough crime-fighting measures.
Back then, most state politicos supported the death penalty, too, as did many national leaders. In this climate, Ridge signed more than 200 death warrants – five times the number signed by his two predecessors.
Even so, just three people were put to death, only after waiving their legal appeals. And no one has been put to death in Pennsylvania since. Indeed, Pennsylvania now has the fifth largest number (186) of condemned prisoners awaiting execution.
The reasons are many for the virtual abandonment of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf’s temporary moratorium is one of them – but even without the moratorium it is doubtful anyone would be executed since the state can no longer legally procure the chemicals needed to carry out an execution.
Meanwhile, support for the death penalty has steadily waned nationally as well as in the state. National Gallup surveys show support peaked during the mid-1990s when almost 80 percent of the population backed it.
Decline in support has been precipitous since. Today, in 2015, just 56 percent of Americans favor it. Many factors explain the erosion in support for the death penalty-botched executions, the enormous cost of actually executing someone (six times the cost of lifetime imprisonment) and the abandonment of the death penalty by virtually the entire western world have changed many minds.
But the two strongest reasons for opposition lay in the dual beliefs that innocent persons have probably been put to death while the death penalty is not really a deterrent.
In Pennsylvania, the June Franklin & Marshall College Poll showed just 61 percent of state voters still favor the penalty, a decline similar to the national erosion of support. Even more tellingly, a plurality of poll respondents favors life in prison over the death penalty, when given that option. Asked do you favor imposing the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole for murderers – most voters favor life imprisonment without parole (47 percent to 41 percent) – compelling evidence of growing discomfit with the ultimate punishment.
Nevertheless, Wolf’s unilateral moratorium has been controversial. The families of murder victims and prosecutors have expressed outrage, while pockets of political opposition have emerged including a legal challenge by Philadelphia’s district attorney.
While the decline in support for the death penalty has been rapid, slim majorities still support it. The sharp divisions over the death penalty nationally as well as in Pennsylvania reflect the vast cultural differences that riven the nation in so many other areas of public policy.
The statistics are stark. In Pennsylvania, three of every four Republicans (75 percent) still favor the death penalty, with only one in seven (15 percent) opposing. But only half (54 percent) of Democrats still support it and even fewer Independents (49 percent).
Ideologically, the polarization is even sharper with liberals and conservatives now virtual mirror images of each other on the issue. Seven in 10 extreme liberals (72 percent) oppose the death penalty but 8 in 10 extreme conservatives (79 percent) favor it.
Interestingly, many demographic groupings often seen at odds over public policy differ little on the death penalty. Neither age nor income reveal any great difference in support or opposition. Nor is there much difference among the major religious denominations.
But regional differences are substantial. In Philadelphia only 3 in 10 (32 percent) support the death penalty while in western Pennsylvania (excluding Allegheny County) 7 in 10 support it.
This pattern of public opinion with its deep partisan and ideological fissures is reflected as well in support or opposition to Wolf’s moratorium. Only 36 percent of Republicans support it while 59 percent of Democrats do; almost 9 in 10 (86 percent) of extreme liberals support Wolf’s action, but only 3 in 10 (28 percent) of extreme conservatives do.
Clearly, public opinion is steadily turning against the death penalty. But a majority, albeit a shrinking one, still support it. Moreover, there are deep differences on the issue among key groups in the electorate. No one is moderate on the death penalty.
Echoing the now too familiar polarization that infuses so much of our politics today, these divisions all but guarantee the death penalty will live on in Pennsylvania for some time. If support for it is declining, it is declining slowly.
The death penalty may end, but not quickly, nor quietly. If it does die it will be a lingering death.