Logo RGB Utah copy

Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Why Try to Revive a Dying Death Penalty?

27 January 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

To end this first week of the legislative session, we bring you news of Rep. Paul Ray’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad death penalty bills (apologies to Judith Viorst). Screen Shot 2017 01 27 at 2.07.46 PM

You have likely already seen a bit about these bills in local news coverage. In fact, sometimes Representative Ray (R-Clearfield)’s efforts to expand the use of the death penalty, in defiance of national trends to move away from this practice, even makes national (or international!) news.

HB 176, “Human Trafficking Amendments,” is a retread of a bill Rep. Ray introduced last year, which ended its progress through the legislative process in the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the 2016 Session, at least one advocate – Virginia Ward, with Journey of Hope – who works with trafficked women in Utah testified:

In my experience as an advocate for women who are trafficked or at risk for trafficking, sometimes the people who are guilty of these crimes are themselves victims. It is completely nonsensical to increase punishments for people who get caught up in this nightmare, where sometimes victims are hard to distinguish from perpetrators.”

Human trafficking is a very serious problem. But the solution is funding, resources, prevention, support and sympathy for the victims, not ineffective punishment for the accused.

The government can’t kill its way out of the problem of human trafficking. It will take a more just and humane approach to help the people who are victimized by human trafficking. The men, women and children who are trafficked need our support. Efforts like HB176 only give more attention to, and waste more money on, the people who are causing problems, rather than the people who are suffering. 

It is strange that the Utah Legislature is, once again, entertaining bills that seek to expand the use of the death penalty, amid a national move away from its use. Cost studies consistently show that the death penalty is more expensive than life without the possibility of parole. Impact studies consistently show that the death penalty is applied unequally across states and from one case to the next. This results in racial disparities in how the death penalty is used in practice, as well as great socioeconomic differences in who is likely to be sentenced and executed.

Another death-penalty-expansion bill proposal by Rep. Ray, which is not yet numbered or publicly available for review, apparently will seek to make it mandatory for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for people accused of killing a law enforcement officer.

This bill is unnecessary at best, and unconstitutional at worst. Unnecessary, as the homicide of a law enforcement officer already carries enhanced penalties, and currently, prosecutors are able to seek the death penalty against the accused.

We haven’t seen the language of the bill yet, but we anticipate that there may be actual constitutional issues with requiring that a particular sentence be sought, regardless of mitigating circumstances. There may also be a separations of powers issue with this proposal, with legislators attempting to dictate what must be done in the courts.

We will keep you posted as the language of this bill, currently titled “Penalty Enhancement for Targeting Law Enforcement Officer,” becomes available.

The ACLU of Utah and a variety of other groups – all across the political spectrum – will be opposing both of these bills, and we encourage our supporters to do so, as well.