New Jersey abolishes the death penalty

Where next?

By: Marlene Martin

New Jersey’s Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation on December 17, 2007 making New Jersey the fourteenth state without the death penalty. This is the first time since 1965 that a state has abolished the death penalty legislatively.  

Eight people on New Jersey’s death row will have their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole.  

The New Jersey victory represents an important milestone in the fight to win complete abolition of the death penalty. Activists have fought on various fronts to expose the faults of the death penalty--its racism, its bias against the poor, its horrendous error rate. As a result, the public has begun to link the death penalty with these flaws.  

This is further demonstrated by the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report. Last year, 110 people were sentenced to death--a drop of 60 percent from the number of death sentences imposed in 1999. Only 38 percent of those polled think the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, according to DPIC. And while 69 percent of those polled favor the death penalty as the punishment for murder, 58 percent support a national moratorium on executions. 

Some people say that New Jersey is an isolated case, and its action won’t have much impact on the general picture of executions in America. They cite the fact that New Jersey never even used its death penalty since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 (which is true--the last person executed in New Jersey was in 1963). 

But the significance of New Jersey is that its example is not likely to stay confined to one state. “The first thing I told my cellmate when I heard the news of New Jersey is, “That’s one down and 36 to go,” and we’re going to do it,” said Stanley Howard who spent 19 years on Illinois death row before being pardoned by Governor Ryan in 2003. He remains incarcerated on other charges. “Other states won’t be scared to step forward and do the same because there is no political fallout.” 

Activists already have their eyes on making Maryland abolitionist state number 15, and rightly so. Maryland’s governor is against the death penalty, and last year, a bill to repeal the death penalty was stopped from moving forward when a legislative committee deadlocked in a 5-5 vote.  

Several other states--Nebraska, New Mexico and Montana--came within one vote of doing away with the death penalty last year. Some legislators in these states say they plan to try again in 2008. 

As abolitionists continue to press forward, we should debate and discuss strategies to advance our fight. Like every movement, there will be conflicting ideas about how best to win. 

For example, does the abolitionist community have to embrace life without the possibility of parole sentences in order to advance the cause of abolition? In New Jersey, leading abolitionists promoted the life without parole sentence as a necessary and just alternative to the death penalty. 

The sentiment of those in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty is that the focus of abolitionists should be on getting rid of the death penalty and the reasons why it should be gotten rid of--not emphasizing the alternatives. 

Why? As Sister Helen Prejean said at the Campaign’s annual convention in November, “The death penalty is just the tip of the iceberg.” There are flaws throughout our criminal justice system, and we should not minimize them or pretend they don’t exist because of the idea that this will help abolish the death penalty. 

If we do win abolition, our fight for justice is not over. One part of it will be--a very significant part. But if the death penalty is just the tip of the iceberg, what about the rest of the iceberg? 

So should we advocate an alternative sentence like life without the possibility of parole without acknowledging that this sentence is unduly harsh and cruel? Or do we point out that our system is riddled with flaws that aren’t confined to the death penalty. We can face the reality that the death penalty, when it is ended, will be replaced with life without parole sentences, but we shouldn’t accept this enthusiastically.