Citing serious flaws in Washington state’s capital punishment system, Governor Jay Inslee announced yesterday that he will issue reprieves for any death penalty cases that come before him while he is in office.
In a statement, the first-term Democrat expressed concern about the unequal way in which the death penalty is imposed and carried out in his state. He pointed out that its use has sometimes depended on the budget of the county where the crime was committed, since the costs involved are high. Since 1981, more than half of the 32 death sentences imposed in Washington state have been overturned. “[W]hen the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system,” Inslee said. Nine men are currently on death row in the state.
Inslee is on the right side of history. He joins the governor of Oregon, John Kitzhaber, who announced a moratorium on executions in 2011, and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who used his reprieve power in a 2013 case, expressing similar concerns with the flawed use of capital punishment. Eighteen US states have abolished the death penalty, including six in just the past six years. Seven states that still have the death penalty available on their books have not executed anyone in the past 10 years.
Inslee announced he would not be commuting any sentences, but that the reprieved prisoners would instead be serving life without possibility of parole during his administration. Without a commutation or legislative abolition, a future governor could withdraw the reprieves and reinstate the death penalty.
Inslee’s decision is certainly a step in the right direction, though he should have gone further and permanently commuted the sentences. Death as government-sanctioned punishment is not only inherently cruel, it is unfixable; fortunately, it is also becoming more and more unusual. The Washington state legislature should follow suit next session and abolish the penalty outright.