Two years ago, with support from a broad coalition of Louisiana civic, religious and government leaders, Gov. John Bel Edwards joined with lawmakers to approve sweeping reforms of the state’s criminal justice system — measures aimed at reducing Louisiana’s prison population, the largest in the nation on a per capita basis, and using the savings to strengthen rehabilitation. Last year, reflecting a similar bipartisan consensus, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts for felonies, bringing the state in line with most of the country.
We believe these changes express an underlying sense of pragmatism within Louisiana’s electorate. Regardless of party or faith, race or walk of life, the state’s citizens share a fundamental interest in a justice system that works. Such a desire seems to be at the heart of legislation that would allow Louisiana voters to decide whether to abolish the death penalty. Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge is pushing a bill that would give voters a chance to weigh in. Claitor opposes capital punishment, although he's a former prosecutor.
Claitor's primary arguments against the death penalty are practical. A fiscal conservative, he notes its whopping cost. The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on capital punishment but rarely executes anybody. He suggests the death penalty wastes money and doesn’t make citizens safer.
Many others share those criticisms, and even Louisiana’s most ardent supporters of capital punishment are challenged by a fundamental reality. For years, Louisiana has pretty much had a death penalty in name only. Constitutional protections give death row inmates the right to lengthy appeals, which seems justified given the high number of such cases that are eventually overturned. Louisiana has not executed anyone since 2010.
Even an inmate who’s exhausted all appeals has no chance of being executed in Louisiana these days. The pharmaceutical industry, fearing bad publicity, won’t sell prison officials the drugs required for lethal injections. A federal court order stemming from a legal challenge to Louisiana’s execution protocols has blocked executions since 2014.
Meanwhile, grieving families of murder victims, seeking the closure an execution presumably provides, languish in limbo, enduring an agony they don’t deserve. The lack of urgency among Louisiana’s elected officials to address the problems paralyzing the current capital punishment system suggests a diminished appetite for putting prisoners to death. But Louisiana’s justice system cannot remain viable by professing one thing and practicing another. It must speak with moral clarity on capital punishment — a question that is, in its most fundamental sense, an issue of life or death.
That clarity can only come if citizens are given the chance to decide at the ballot box whether Louisiana should keep its death penalty. We urge lawmakers to let the voters be heard.