We hoped for a serious legislative session focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressing issues affecting Iowans. It didn’t take long for legislative leaders to show they had other plans.
A panel in the Iowa Senate last week approved a bill to allow for the death penalty for certain violent crimes against children. It was the first piece of legislation to advance in the new General Assembly.
At best, fast-tracking a bill aimed at an extremely specific set of crimes — while a deadly disease outbreak continues to spread largely uncontrolled — demonstrates poor priorities among Republicans who control the legislative agenda. Even in normal times, though, reinstating the death penalty would be bad policy.
Capital punishment has been a recurring political issue since Iowa’s founding. The first territorial governor advocated against the practice, but legislators codified it anyway. Iowa in 1878 became the first state to restore the death penalty after previously abolishing it. The modern ban has been in place since 1965.
Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to revive the death penalty. Senate Study Bill 1004, approved last week by a Senate subcommittee, calls for the death penalty in cases where someone kidnaps, sexually abuses and murders a minor.
That is a particularly heinous series of crimes and we have little sympathy for such perpetrators. However, the death penalty is costly to administer due to the extensive legal proceedings required.
Worse yet, it makes an executioner out of the government, and by extension, all Iowans. That is a heavy moral burden the state should not impose on its citizens.
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While the Senate Judiciary Committee debates state-sponsored killing, the state’s judicial system has been “turned on its head for almost a year,” Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen said in her Condition of the Judiciary remarks last week.
Jury trials were suspended twice last year amid COVID-19 case surges, and now are set to resume in February. No thanks to the Legislature, the courts are adapting to meet the challenge.
Christensen in her speech touted programs that would actually help children — such as “family first” policies to avoid child removal and family treatment courts to help parents transition out of the corrections system. Lawmakers attention would be much better spent supporting and expanding those programs, rather than on a misguided campaign to revive the death penalty.
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