Monday, December 27, 2010

No death penalty for Wisconsin

The year 2010 will be remembered for a lot of things, most of them not so great. Tragedies, anger, and disappointment dominated the headlines for much of the year. It helps sometimes, in years like these, to look for silver linings, to see the positives that came out of the year rather than focus on the negatives.

The issue of capital punishment in America is one such issue, though for many it's still a depressing issue to consider. In 2010, the trend of death sentences declining continued, with the number of sentences nearly mirroring numbers in 2009 -- 114 in 2010 compared to 112 the year before.

The number of executions conducted in 2010 also went down a significant margin, down 12 percent from 2009 levels and a full fifty percent from 1990. Even Texas is seeing a decline, with juries in that state handing out only eight death sentences in 2010, an all-time low since capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S.

In our neck of the woods, not much has changed: Wisconsin is among the twelve states in the U.S. that doesn't have a death penalty. In 1851, following the gruesome 15-minute hanging of John McCaffary before thousands of witnesses, the state reassessed its stance on the death penalty, subsequently abolishing it. Among those twelve states, Wisconsin has been without a death penalty the third longest, behind only Michigan and Rhode Island.

But many in our state would like to see that change. In 2006, Republican lawmakers sought to get the death penalty back in our state, though they recognized there was no chance of that even after an advisory referendum turned out in their favor. In that same election year, Democrats took over the State Senate, making it impossible for Republicans to push for the measure.

With Republicans back in power, it's only a matter of time before they bring the issue back up (Gov.-elect Scott Walker, for example, supports the idea). But reinstating the death penalty in Wisconsin would take our state in the wrong direction.

Firstly, the death penalty just plain costs too much -- many experts consider this one of the reasons why prosecutors are seeking capital punishment less. With Wisconsin's multi-billion dollar budget deficit, reinstating the death penalty would be fiscally irresponsible.

More important than that, however, are the moral dilemmas facing the death penalty. Other states implementing the practice haven't exactly had a perfect track record, either sentencing innocent criminals to death or through carrying out the execution of innocents.

Furthermore, the state doesn't have the right to punish people in this manner. By conducting an action the state itself deems illegal, the government acts in a hypocritical way, telling the people it governs as "do as we say, not as we do." If we're to say that murder -- all forms of it -- are wrong, except in cases of self-defense, then it's wrong for the state to partake in the practice as well.

Wisconsin should take a cue from other states, both those that don't have the death penalty as well as those who have reduced their numbers over the years (only 12 states actually carried out death sentences in 2010). Bringing the death penalty back to our state, after nearly 150 years of it being abolished, would be a grave mistake. Besides being a financial disaster, it'd be morally wrong, too. We should reject the calls for reinstating the death penalty, should they come up again during the next legislative session.

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