A bill reducing New Jersey's most severe criminal sentence from the death penalty to life in prison without parole was passed by the State Senate in a 21-16 vote on Monday.
The move to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey was approved by the General Assembly's Law and Public Safety Committee early Monday before the Senate vote and has received strong support from Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Given the 50-to-30 Democratic majority in the Assembly, the measure is expected to pass easily when legislators vote on Thursday.
The Senate vote was expected to be the greatest obstacle to the bill. Four Republicans, three of whom will not return next month when the new Senate takes over, voted against party lines.
The successful passage of the bill will make New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
Holding the vote during the lame-duck legislative session granted political cover to legislators who may have voted otherwise if their votes were subjected to stricter public scrutiny.
Andrew Malcolm '09, president of the College Republicans, said he is "disappointed that the Senate chose to vote on this issue during the lame-duck session this month instead of allowing the newly elected members of the Senate to vote on this issue next year."
Though the College Republicans do not have an official stance on the issue, Malcolm said that, "overall, most of our membership favors the death penalty for especially heinous crimes."
David Christie '10, co-chair of Princeton Coalition Against Capital Punishment (PCACP), said that the timing of the vote did not detract from its significance.
"This is, traditionally, when a lot of liberal legislation goes through. I don't foresee the decision being overturned in the future. I think it's law, and it's here to stay, and it doesn't really matter when it happens."
The state's capital punishment policy attracted greater attention after the New Jersey Death Penalty Commission issued a report in January 2007 that recommended its abolition.
Emeritus politics professor Jameson Doig said in an email that the death penalty probably deters some potential killers, but not all.
"Many murders are done in the heat of the moment," he said in an email, "without the kind of rational calculation that would lead the potential killer to change his mind and behavior" after considering the possibility of being sentenced to death if caught.
"Also, life in prison without parole is likely to deter many of those 'rational potential murderers' - and, maybe, more than are deterred by the fear of execution," he added.
"Many potential killers would rather die than look forward to 30 to 40 years - until they die a natural death - locked up behind bars."
Doig, who served on the New Jersey State Corrections Commission from 1974 to 1982 and on the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Parole in the 1990s, added that one of the death penalty's major flaws, as evidenced in recent years by DNA testing, is that it often leads to the execution of those who are not actually guilty.
The state's measure, if it is passed as expected, could affect debates in other states over their capital punishment policies.
"Assuming that the Assembly passes this law this Thursday, it's really a historic law," Christie said. "I think media coverage, in particular, will re-raise the issue throughout the country."
But Doig said that despite what happens in New Jersey, "in most states, abolition of the death penalty will not happen very soon - it serves for many as a symbol of ... law-and-order society."
© 2007 The Daily Princetonian via U-WIRE