Early in my career I strongly favored the death penalty because I knew several people that had committed heinous crimes. It simply didn’t occur to me that there could be any alternative response to what they did. The longer I worked, I was able to develop a more realistic image of offenders. My attitude that the bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys are the good guys went away. I started to realize that they’re all people. Granted, they’ve done bad things, but they’re still people. What we have to remember is that there’s much more to a person than the crime they committed. The crime does not make the person. The crime is just a small part of the person we have to deal with.
It was a relief for me when I realized that it was reasonable to not want people killed, despite what they’ve done. Whenever anybody was executed, especially the two folks who I knew personally in Montana, it was a horrible feeling. I literally felt sick when I woke up in the morning knowing that my state, somewhat in my name, just murdered somebody. I think it demeans our whole state and I think we’d all be better off without the death penalty. We’d be a more civilized, progressive society if we weren’t doing that.
What I have learned and observed from more than 35 years in working with adult felons is that the majority of them are prone to a lifestyle that leads to criminal behavior, often even before kindergarten. Factors such as poverty, lack of competent parenting, quality education, food, healthcare (including psychological intervention), and many other issues result in people being pulled into anti-social conduct. Our society leaves a large number of children in social settings that give them an enormously disproportionate likelihood of future criminal behavior. Society typically responds to the behavior with punitive, ineffective sanctions that do nothing to discourage similar conduct in the future or to address the issues that led to that behavior.
Washington state is a progressive state, and we’ve led the way in a number of areas that some claimed would have negative social effects that didn’t turn out to be true. I think people will find that if the death penalty were abolished here, crime won’t go up. There is absolutely no data whatsoever to support the notion that capital punishment deters crime. People won’t all of a sudden start murdering people because they don’t have to worry about the death penalty, and we’ll be a better society for this. The idea that crime rates would increase if the death penalty were repealed is just ridiculous. People who commit capital crimes very seldom plan them; they are almost always emotional, spur-of-the moment sorts of things. It’s not something where somebody’s thinking, “Boy, I would kill him, except we have the death penalty in this state.” That’s just not what happens.
As I have worked in the criminal justice business and seen the amount of money that is spent on criminal justice, I’ve realized how obscenely expensive capital punishment is. In King County there have been two death penalty cases that King County spent nearly $7 million in the phase to determine whether or not they could even ask for the death penalty. It cost the taxpayers in King County $7 million for that decision to be made. At the same time, King County recently closed down their cold case unit for lack of funding, but somehow they could afford $7 million to determine whether the death penalty should be sought. That’s just one example of the grotesque amount of money that is spent on the death penalty.