Legislature(1995 - 1996)
03/27/1996 01:50 PM FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SPONSOR SUBSTITUTE FOR SENATE BILL NO. 52 An Act authorizing capital punishment, classifying murder in the first degree as a capital felony, and establishing sentencing procedures for capital felonies; authorizing an advisory vote on instituting capital punishment; and providing for an effective date. Co-chairman Halford directed that SSSB 52 be brought on for discussion and referenced CSSSSB 52 (Jud). He explained that the judiciary version provides only for an advisory vote on the issue of capital punishment. The only reason it was referred to Finance is the $2.2 fiscal note from the Division of Elections. CHARLES CAMPBELL first came forward to speak to the bill. He advised that he came to Alaska in 1979 as director of corrections and would be testifying based on many years of experience in criminal justice. He voiced his belief that an advisory vote on capital punishment could initiate a public policy with tremendous costs in the future. Further, an affirmative majority on the advisory vote will make it extremely difficult for legislators to vote against the death penalty. Since the death penalty would not be good for Alaska, the committee would be prudent to set the bill aside until there is opportunity for additional research beyond that conducted in Senate Judiciary. If presented to the public at this time, Alaska's residents will be voting on the basis of "a great deal of misinformation." It would be a disservice to present the question to voters under those circumstances. Mr. Campbell voiced his belief that there are no rational arguments in favor of the death penalty. He then referenced evidence which he said indicates that the death penalty in America "has caused murders that might have otherwise not been committed." Death penalty states consistently show higher murder rates than states without capital punishment. Reinstitution of the death penalty has preceded increases in murder rates. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, and the murder rate decreased. In the past year, the state of Texas executed three times more prisoners than any other state, and the murder rate in Texas is 14 per 100,000--twice the national average. Review of the death penalty in New York State over a 60-year period (1906-1966) evidences a pattern of two additional murders during each month following one or more executions. Findings indicate that those who are predisposed to violent behavior are more likely to be incited than deterred by the prospect of execution. Mr. Campbell acknowledged that statistics provide indications rather than absolute conclusions. Mr. Campbell said he recognized the political appeal of capital punishment, particularly in districts where constituents feel strongly about the issue. While most people believe in the death penalty from time to time, for particular crimes, when all facts are considered, there are no arguments in favor of it. There are no national organizations working for perpetuation of the death penalty. A better approach would be for the legislature to research what is happening throughout the United States and provide information to constituents. In his closing remarks, Mr. Campbell stressed that capital punishment is not good public policy. It will not control crime. Senator Randy Phillips referenced prior advisory votes and noted that the legislature took no action based on any of them. Mr. Campbell suggested that on this issue the legislature should advise the voters rather than the voters advising the legislature. Senator Phillips said that voters would review the facts prior to a vote. Mr. Campbell suggested that the right information might not be provided. Surveys indicate that the majority thinks the death penalty is inexpensive and would save money. SUSIE GREGG FOWLER next came before committee. She voiced concern that the intent of the advisory vote is to limit discussion on merits and costs of capital punishment. That discussion should occur with statewide public participation. Presenting Alaskans with an advisory vote on capital punishment would be a great disservice in that many residents are not well informed about current punishment for those convicted of murder. A recent poll shows that 78 percent of Alaskans believe that those convicted of first degree murder are released after one to twenty years. In fact, there is no release after twenty years, and the average sentence is eighty to ninety years. People are frightened by stories of those who get out and kill again. Those stories have remained in the mind of the public rather than actual facts about what the criminal justice system provides. A second problem with the advisory vote relates to the question being asked. The death penalty information center released a report, three years ago, which indicated that when the public is simply asked whether it is for or against the death penalty, a high percentage (77%) responds affirmatively. When asked if they support the death penalty or life without parole plus restitution, support for capital punishment dropped to 49 percent, and 44 percent preferred life imprisonment. Opposition to the death penalty does not suggest that one is soft on crime. At issue is the moral question of life or death and the appropriateness of the state taking a life. Mrs. Fowler voiced need for leadership which does not pander to public fears but seeks different opinions and then makes courageous and responsible decisions. She suggested that there is no compelling reason for the advisory vote. ANNIE CARPENETI, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, Dept. of Law, next came before committee voicing opposition to the bill. She stressed that the death penalty is an extremely difficult subject. It is associated with issues that need debate within the legislature. Asking a single question for or against capital punishment is unfair. Will voters know that it costs from three to six times more to execute a prisoner than to house an inmate for the rest of his or her life? Ms. Carpeneti next spoke to problems capital punishment would cause prosecutors because it "skews the case law for all cases." Many decisions in a criminal case are committed to the discretion of a trial judge. When the stakes are as high as the death penalty, judges will want to ensure that they are correct. They will bend over backwards to do so. The criminal justice system is not perfect. It has resulted in execution of innocent people in the past. There is no reason to expect that will not occur in the future. No information evidences that capital punishment deters murder. The Dept. of Law is getting long sentences for those convicted of first degree murder. In territorial days, when capital punishment was in effect, evidence indicates that non-whites were executed at a much higher rate than whites, for similar offenses. This is a problem all states with death penalty provisions are attempting to address. In her concluding remarks, Mrs. Carpeneti advised that the death penalty is wrong. Violence should not be answered with violence. Research shows that if a single question, as contemplated by the advisory vote, is placed before the public, the response is affirmative. A selection of options provides a much different response. There is concern that an advisory vote asking only one question will be perceived as a public mandate. Comments followed by Senator Randy Phillips reiterating earlier statements that the legislature has not, in the past, acted on advisory votes. Senator Sharp requested a brief at ease. RECESS - 3:15 P.M. RECONVENE - 3:30 P.M. Senator Sharp MOVED that CSSSSB 52 (Jud) pass from committee. Senator Zharoff OBJECTED. Co-chairman Halford called for a show of hands. The motion carried on a vote of 5 to 1, and CSSSSB 52 (Jud) was REPORTED OUT of committee with a $2.2 fiscal note from the Office of the Governor (Division of Elections) and zero notes from the Dept. of Public Safety and the Alaska Court System. Co-chairmen Halford and Frank and Senators Phillips and Sharp signed the committee report with a "do pass" recommendation. Senators Rieger and Zharoff signed "no recommendation."