Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee chair rules out death penalty bill

Incoming Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Hogg confirmed this week that his committee will not take up a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa. Republican State Senator Kent Sorenson is not deterred.  

On Monday, Sorenson helped arrange a meeting with Governor Terry Branstad and a press conference featuring the parents of several Iowa children who have been abducted and killed. The parents of Elizabeth Collins, one of two girls murdered this summer in northeast Iowa, see the death penalty as a way to protect children. Sorenson will introduce a bill restoring capital punishment for people who commit two Class A felonies. Mike Wiser reported,

Assistant Director of the Department of Corrections Fred Scaletta said there are 67 people in the Iowa prison system convicted of two or more Class A felonies. There are 636 inmates serving life without parole and, as of Monday, 8,231 people incarcerated the system. [...]

Sorenson said he recognizes that it's an "uphill battle" to get the death penalty back on the books.

He said that will be only one aim of the legislation that also will include better tracking of people once they get out of prison and potential improvements to statewide notification systems such as Amber Alert. He said specifics are forthcoming.

Branstad made clear last week that he agrees with Sorenson, but won't push hard for the death penalty because the bill has poor prospects in the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate. Speaking to Rod Boshart, Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Hogg explained why he opposes capital punishment.

"The bottom line for me is Iowa hasn't had it for over 40 years, there's bipartisan opposition and we already have enough killing. I don't think more killing helps and in Iowa it's very clear we have life in prison without the possibility of parole," he said. [...]

"They are obviously free to file bills," Hogg said Monday. "The Senate Judiciary Committee under my chairman is not going to be taking up that bill for consideration."

Hogg said he wanted to see the state boost its funding for public safety and make certain law enforcement agencies are "deploying all the resources of state government to catch the perpetrator or perpetrators of that offense. We've got to find them and bring them to justice. To me, that's my bigger concern than having a debate about the death penalty. We've got to find who committed those offenses and bring them to justice."

Hogg added that he is not convinced that a death penalty, even limited to certain circumstances, would deter crimes from being committed as proponents claim.

"To my knowledge, there is no data that supports the concept that the death penalty is a deterrent at all," the Cedar Rapids Democrat said.

"There are cases where people have actually taken people from Iowa and killed them in other states where there was a death penalty. I think that pretty well shows that there's no deterrent value there," Hogg added. "The type of crazy, heinous people who commit these types of offenses, I don't think they're paying attention to whether the state has a death penalty or not and I've never seen any data that supports that. The experts I've talked to who track this stuff very carefully say that there is no positive deterrent effect."

I understand why many people support the death penalty, especially those who went through the unimaginable hell of losing a loved one through homicide. A lot of research supports Hogg's position, though.

For example, compare the homicide rates in California, New York and Texas, as the National Research Council has done. From 1974 to 2009, the homicide rates in those three states tracked virtually identically - going up at the same time in the late 1970s and late 1980s and all declining dramatically since then.

Yet during that time Texas had 447 executions and New York had none; California had 13. Clearly, something other than executions has had an effect on declining murder rates. And that clearly is what we should focus on.

That pattern holds up in comparisons of Canada and the United States, too.

Murder rates in Canada have gone up and down in virtual lockstep with U.S. rates over the years. Yet Canada has had no executions since 1962. In fact, during the period just after the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976, murder rates remained high in the United States while declining in Canada.

Murder rates in the United States began a real decline in the 1990s, and research suggests multiple factors are involved.

For example, crime experts attribute the steep decline in violent crime that began in 1993 to new police strategies such as targeted police patrols of gun-crime hot spots and effective enforcement of gun laws.

Regardless of the outcome in the state legislature, I expect Sorenson's crusade to reinstate the death penalty to feature prominently in his 2014 campaign for re-election in Iowa Senate district 13.

UPDATE: An unsigned editorial in the Iowa City Press-Citizen highlights other reasons not to reinstate capital punishment.

Among the Iowa politicians supporting the death penalty, the primary arguments seem to be 1) providing closure for the families of the victims and 2) providing a deterrent that would cause kidnappers and rapists to think twice about killing their victims.

But among all the studies produced by the legal community, the jury is still out on the question of whether the death penalty provides any deterrence whatsoever. Those studies, instead, show overwhelming evidence that death penalty laws have been discriminatory toward racial minorities as well as toward anyone who can't afford an attorney.

The studies likewise show overwhelmingly that the many trials and appeals necessary to secure an execution make it far more expensive for any state and the nation to house death row inmates than to house prisoners who face life without the possibility of parole.

Detectives and prosecutors have also used the threat of seeking the death penalty to elicit false confessions.

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