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7/17/2013 9:25:00 AM Columns: The death penalty scam
Tom Collins NT Senior Writer
I was scrolling recently through a list of recent legislation that’s gone nowhere when twin bills caught my eye. Senate Bill 2275 and House Bill 3012 proposed reinstating the death penalty in Illinois and, predictably, lawmakers with pensions and guns on their mind left both measures in committee, untouched. With financial issues weighing heavily on Springfield’s collective minds, re-launching capital punishment doesn’t appear to be either party’s the to-do list. It’s a non-issue. No surprise there. One thing did surprise me, however. Neither bill drew a single co-sponsor. Of the 177 people seated in the Illinois General Assembly, only Republican bill sponsors Kirk Dillard and Dennis Reboletti attached their names to legislation to put killers back on death row. Amy Barry, a spokeswoman for Dillard, said capital punishment was an afterthought in a session when concealed carry and pension funding hogged the spotlight. “We had so many things going on last spring,” Barry said, “it was pretty well understood everyone would leave it alone.” And that’s a shame. This is not to say I favor bringing back the death penalty — I supported abolition, which was enacted in spring 2011 — but a floor debate would at least enable taxpayers to get a fresh look at why we got rid of it in the first place and see whether the promised results were delivered. Gov. Pat Quinn had signed the abolition bill citing fundamental flaws in the system but the legislation was passed on the dubious premise that Illinois didn’t have the means to afford it any longer. Make no mistake: Illinois is broke. But righting the financial ship is an issue that hinges more on pension reform and taxation than eliminating any single line-item, no matter how controversial. And if the death penalty were such a drain on state resources, then why is Illinois still deeply mired in the red now that it’s gone? I also put the question to Brian Towne, La Salle County state’s attorney: Has abolition abetted the criminal justice system at the local level? Categorically, the answer was no. Abolishing the death penalty has done nothing to speed up the murder caseload in La Salle County. Consider that pre-abolition killers Dennis Wilson of La Salle and James Alvarado of Streator were tried and convicted in 10 months and 16 months, respectively, before capital punishment was abolished. Since capital punishment came off the books, the rural Earlville shooting and Darrio Hunter killing have lumbered on for 17 months and 24 months and counting — and with no end in sight. Abolition has not resulted in staff cuts or budgetary savings. Towne said Illinois’s transition to a non-capital punishment state hasn’t diminished his burdens of proof or the costs of putting felons behind bars. “Actually, it ended up costing us more money,” Towne mused. “With the death penalty being abolished, we no longer had access to the capital litigation funds we used to finance the Mackowiak prosecution, so in essence in costs to my county on that one particular case.” In sum, the 2010-11 debate over the death penalty ended up being an inverse reflection of the gambling debate. Years ago, advocates sold the General Assembly on the expansion of gambling on the shaky notion that it would help fund schools. It was a scam: Gambling generated a drop in the proverbial bucket and didn’t do much to improve education. Abolition of the death penalty is proving to be a mirror-image con. Death penalty opponents pitched abolition as a cost-saving measure; but the savings appear as negligible as the proceeds from gambling. From a fiscal standpoint, Illinois was sold a bill of goods on both counts. I oppose capital punishment. I don’t want the death penalty reinstated. I want death row to remain empty. But when the debate comes up again — and it surely will — I’d also like for opponents to next time acknowledge the moral reasoning for abolition and I’d like for advocates to admit the fiscal benefits were a mirage