President Biden said ‘no’ to the death penalty. Now what?

US Congress Capitol Hillsource: Reuters
published: 21 June 2021

It suddenly became much more difficult over the past week to figure out what the Biden administration plans to do about the death penalty, even though the president and attorney general previously had left little doubt.

President Joe Biden promised to work “to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow” that example. Attorney General Merrick Garland has questioned the death penalty on a fundamental level – at least in terms of practice, if not values or morality. And he said he expects a return to a longstanding moratorium under which the government refrained from carrying out a single execution from 2003 to July last year, during the Trump administration.

Biden’s campaign centered on criminal justice reform arguably more so than any previous American president, and he’s the first to take an openly abolitionist position on the death penalty. During his confirmation hearing, Garland cited the shockingly large numbers of people who’ve been exonerated in death penalty cases and of some Americans who’ve likely been executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

He referred to enormous racial disparities in capital cases, and especially in those in which the convicted have ultimately been exonerated, points confirmed by an analysis published in February by the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. Garland even said he’s concerned about the arbitrariness with which the death penalty is applied, describing it as “almost randomness.”

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