Formally Abolish Oregon's Death Penalty... Again | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Formally Abolish Oregon's Death Penalty... Again


During Gov. John Kitzhaber's first term as governor in the late 1990s, he faced a difficult decision: Abide by Oregon's Constitution or follow his own conscience. Understanding the rule of law and the will of the majority, he did the former and did not stand in the way of seeing two people executed under Oregon laws that allowed for capital punishment at the time. Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, called it, "the most difficult decision I ever had to make in public office."

Formally Abolish Oregon's Death Penalty... Again

In 2011, then in his third (and non-consecutive) term as governor, Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in the state. His successor, Gov. Kate Brown, did the same in 2015, and last month went further by announcing clemency for all of the 17 people who were on death row in Oregon. The death penalty was both "dysfunctional and immoral," Brown said.

Brown's successor, Tina Kotek, said she plans to do the same. All that came after a decision in 2020 by the Oregon Department of Corrections to do away with "death row," the unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary where all inmates sentenced to death lived.

Oregon has had a storied history with the death penalty. It abolished it by popular vote in 1914. Just six years later, in 1920, voters brought it back. In 1964, voters once again abolished it, only to see voters, in 1978, reinstate it once again. Oregon's Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1981, but voters once again reinstated it in 1984 for the last time in the modern age. Now, though, governors including Kitzhaber and Brown have implemented something of an informal ban by not allowing any executions under their watch.

While the history of Oregon's death penalty laws has lots of twists and turns, we propose this: Put the notion of abolishing the death penalty in the state on the ballot once again. If Oregon's governors are not going to enforce it, why put them in the position that Kitzhaber found himself in during the '90s?

If your first thought is about the rises in crime that became a battle cry for certain political candidates during the last election, findings from an October 2022 Pew Research Poll may be of interest:

Pew stated that, "[a]nnual government surveys from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate." While it was true that murder rates had "risen significantly during the pandemic" and the "roughly 30% increase in the U.S. murder rate between 2019 and 2020 [was] one of the largest year-over-year increases ever recorded," Pew noted that "the rate remained well below past highs, and murder remains the least common type of violent crime overall."

Those in favor of keeping the death penalty in place sometimes say that it's a deterrent to violent crime, but the statistics don't exactly bear that out. An analysis by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center found that murder rates during the pandemic were the highest in states with the death penalty and lowest in states that have abolished it. Among states, Oregon had the sixth-lowest murder rate during the pandemic at 2.89 per 100,000 people. Mississippi, a death-penalty state, by way of contrast, saw the highest murder rate at 20.5 per 100,000 people.

And then there's the cost of putting people to death. A study funded by the Oregon Justice Resource Center in 2016 found that death penalty cases cost more – to the tune of $800,000 to $1 million more due to the two-phase trials, cost of defense and the appeals process, among other factors.

With all of these factors combined, it's clear that the death penalty is fraught with concerns, yet remains in the state Constitution and continues to be circumvented by the governor. Knowing the current will of Oregon voters would go a long way in preventing these decisions from flowing with the political tides of the governorship and give clear direction regarding the ultimate decision any government makes.

It is time to put the issue back to a vote of the people... again.

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