Saturday, January 1, 2011

Is it a “win” that they’re even going to discuss issue of execution abolition?

My initial reaction to learning that some activists who want to do away with the death penalty think they have achieved a political victory by getting the General Assembly to even consider the issue when they return to the “Statehouse in Springpatch” next week is to say “Bull!”
Will abollition talk echo the halls of the Capitol?

I’m not one much for symbolic victories. I need to see some sort of action to convince me that anything has a chance of changing.

SO WHEN IT comes to the issue of the death penalty in Illinois and whether we’re going to continue the charade of having a capital crimes statute on the books, I don’t know what to think.

There is rhetoric that says a bill to abolish executions as a criminal punishment could be called for a final vote in the Illinois House of Representatives some time this coming week.

That bill already has received support from an Illinois House committee, although that committee’s support was purely on politically partisan lines.

So it is likely that for this measure to get through the Illinois Legislature and have a chance of being signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn (which isn’t a guarantee, he's being very non-committal on this issue these days), it is going to have to be a Democratic majority willing to use its muscle to force this issue through.

THAT COULD HAPPEN. For the result of the 2010 elections in Illinois was to maintain solid urban, Democratic Party control over state government.

What could derail this issue is if its opponents decide to try to make this an “urban vs. rural” issue and try to get those Democratic legislators from areas outside the six-counties of metro Chicago to vote against it.

Try to make it seem that an execution is as “all-American” as apple pie or Chevrolet.

Yes, I’m mocking that sentiment. But that is what we’re going to hear in coming days if this issue comes up. Already, state’s attorneys from Peoria and Pekin say they’re urging local people to call up their legislators and make it clear that abolishing the death penalty is NOT the will of the people of Illinois.

NOT THAT THIS rhetoric surprises me. The two prosecutors in particular who are making these comments are long-time prosecutors who have no other professional interests besides criminal law. They also have been rather vocal on this issue throughout the years.

In short, I’d be surprised if the state’s attorneys for Peoria and Tazewell counties were NOT vocally opposed to abolishing the death penalty. Nothing they are saying these days is at all surprising.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out, since we just completed an election cycle in Illinois where the rural parts of the state were fairly strong in their support for Republican candidates (actually, they were downright negative toward anything Democratic Party-related, trying to label it as “Chicago”),

There were people who, to the very end, thought that rural Illinois was going to carry state Sen. William Brady, R-Bloomington, and his gubernatorial campaign all the way to victory. Instead, the urban vote of Cook County was strong enough to overcome that rural sentiment.

COULD WE VERY well get a repeat of that, with the urban legislators pushing a death penalty abolition all the way through into law? Or will this issue and its political failure become political payback for those people who are bitter about the fact that we now have Pat Quinn preparing to take the oath of office in coming weeks for his own four-year term as Illinois governor?

Anybody who has read this weblog in the past knows I am a death penalty opponent. I have just seen too many cases where the process winds up arousing the hatred of the public and does nothing to pacify the families of those people who were killed in violent manners.

Also, I’m skeptical of whether the concept of execution has any deterrent effect.

But I’m also aware that some people are determined to keep the capital crimes statute on the books, regardless of how flawed it is or how infrequently it is used. Don’t forget that Illinois lost its capital crimes statute in 1972 when the Supreme Court of the United States struck it down for the nation. When the high court set guidelines four years later for reinstatement, Illinois couldn’t wait to create a new capital crimes statute.

WE IN ILLINOIS haven’t had an execution since 1999, and the fact that Brady tried campaigning for governor (but failed) on the idea that he would repeal the stay on all executions that has existed since the days of Gov. George Ryan ought to be seen as some sort of evidence that a solid portion of the state population doesn’t feel the need for a death penalty.

This will be a tough political fight. It will arouse the kind of issues among Illinois politicos that immigration reform causes these days among those political people on Capitol Hill. “Common sense” will go out the window in many cases.

So will the Illinois House have the will to pass this bill? Will the state Senate have the nerve to follow through and back the abolition idea as well?

The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has its “lobby day” planned for Tuesday. The activists likely will hold some sort of rally at the state Capitol to try to draw press attention, then will have their members fan out around the building to try to meet with every member of the Illinois House to talk one-on-one about the issue.

THE ONLY PROBLEM with that tactic is that every activist group on all sides has a “lobby day.” There is a sense when this week’s group of activist blends into last week’s and next month’s, and the issues sort of all merge.

Here’s hoping that at least a few of those activists are able to get through to the minds of our legislators. We all lose if this issue delves to the level of “Chicago” vs. “the rest of the state.”


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