Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Executing the Death Penalty?

I’m not about to predict whether the General Assembly is on the verge of abolishing Illinois’ capital crimes statute. But if it were to happen, the next few weeks would be the prime time to do so.

We’re in that period of time when the old General Assembly is in its final days of the veto session, coupled with the few days in January when it will return for one final burst of activity before the legislators who were elected last month take control of the Statehouse Scene.

THAT MEANS IF our legislators are inclined to take on a vote that will outrage a certain segment of society, this is the time to do it. There will be the maximum amount of time between now and the November 2012 elections. Only the most hard-core of people on this issue will remember that long.

Then again, when it comes to the death penalty, the issue has a hard-core that is more intense than those of most other issues.

So will Illinois join the ranks of 15 other states (including neighbors such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota) and the District of Columbia in abolishing the idea of putting people to death as punishment for certain violent crimes?

Will they abolish it outright? Or will they follow the lead of New Mexico, which abolished its capital crimes statute in 2009 for future offenses but left the existing death sentences intact?

NOW ANYBODY WHO has read my commentary published here knows I personally am opposed to capital punishment – largely because I don’t think it does a thing to deter violent crime. Those people who commit such acts are either not thinking straight, or they are convinced they have plotted their offense out so thoroughly that they’ll be “the one” who gets away with it.

The fact that they don’t usually is a testament to the fact that their “thorough” planning wasn’t.

So personally, I was pleased to learn of an Illinois House judiciary committee that on Tuesday gave its recommendation to a pending bill that would abolish the capital crimes statute that was approved in Illinois in 1977.

I also was not surprised to learn that the bill’s recommendation came by a 4-3 vote, with the four-member Democratic majority supporting the measure and the three Republicans opposing it.

YET JUST BECAUSE one committee gave its support doesn’t mean we should start scheduling the bill-signing ceremony with Gov. Pat Quinn quite yet.

This measure could still get stalled in the Illinois House, although I suspect the fact that House Speaker Michael Madigan- D-Chicago, allowed his minions to consider the bill in committee means he will not interfere with their ability to get it passed by the full House, possibly this week.

I suspect it will be the Illinois Senate that will be the trickier place for the bill. That legislative chamber may be controlled by Democrats. But I’m sure Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has his own agenda of issues he wants to consider, and many of those could wind up getting ignored if he has to focus attention on gaining support for a death  penalty abolishment.

In many ways, it means the basic attitude of Illinois Legislature types hasn’t changed one bit during the past decade. Then-Gov. George Ryan used much of his time in office to create various panels that studied the Illinois death penalty and find its flaws.

HE DESPERATELY WANTED the General Assembly to create some sort of law that would fix those flaws. I can envision his desire to be the governor who “reformed” the death penalty. It never happened, largely because the legislators didn’t want to be bothered with the issue.

It was that desire to ignore it that caused Ryan to use his own final days in office to clear out the Death Rows in Illinois, and also impose a halt to executions – one that would have come to an end had William Brady actually been elected governor.

But that didn’t end capital punishment in Illinois – even though there hasn’t been an execution since Andrew Kokoraleis was put to death in 1999 at the Tamms Correctional Center in far Southern Illinois. There are roughly 40 men currently condemned to die in Illinois, although none have scheduled death dates.

Illinois may have effectively brought an end to capital punishment. But it isn’t official. Pushing forward with this particular bill, no matter how much the social conservative ideologues rage, is merely bringing the laws on the books into compliance with the modern-day reality.

STEVENS: Speaking out in retirement
BUT SOME OF our political people are too easily intimidated by those individuals who just can’t stand the idea of a society that doesn’t permit a means for killing certain of its individuals, “in the name of justice.”

They are the ones who are raging these days because retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (a Chicago native) recently had published a commentary where he says the nation as a whole should abolish the death penalty because the current system is, “shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”

It would be nice to see that our state’s Legislature comes to that same realization. Perhaps it will. About the only thing I do know for sure is that if it doesn’t happen now, it isn’t about to happen anytime in the near future.


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