Inslee leads death penalty debate

The OlympianFebruary 13, 2014 

In the defining moment of his first term thus far, Gov. Jay Inslee this week put a moratorium on executions in the state of Washington. In getting out ahead of a controversial issue, the governor showed he’s capable of bold leadership.

Whether the moratorium leads to informed debate and lasting public policy, rather than a temporary delay in executions, now depends on the governor’s ability to sustain the conversation.

It’s his issue. He owns it, and now the governor must drive the public process that he started Tuesday.

Our editorial board leans toward Inslee’s position: that the death penalty is arbitrary, applied inconsistently, grossly expensive for taxpayers and provides no deterrent to those who commit horrific crimes.

Others, including some of the victims of violent crimes, and their families, will have differing points of view. It’s time, the governor says, to discuss abolishing capital punishment in Washington.

Some critics question the timing of Inslee’s announcement. There is no current case that demands action by the governor. But that’s the point.

Inslee wants to avoid the impossible decision faced by former Gov. Mike Lowry, a death-penalty opponent, who had to make the tough life-or-death decision of a murderer in 1994.

Rather than make case-by-case decisions when appeals for clemency reach the governor’s desk, which they inevitably do, Inslee wants to establish public policy. Lowry told The Seattle Times, “I think that’s a very good way to govern.”

State governments are trending toward Inslee’s position. Six have abolished death penalties in the past six years, raising the total to 18 plus the District of Columbia. Oregon and Colorado have moratoriums in place.

From Thurston County to the U.S. attorney general’s office, law and justice agencies are rethinking the criminal justice system. Who should be in jail? Are there better methods of preventing and addressing criminal behavior? How should we deploy the shrinking resources for law and justice?

The issues are complex and the debate will be difficult, but necessary. We applaud Inslee for getting it started.

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