The New Jersey legislature has voted to abolish the death penalty, and Corzine says that he will sign the bill. Good. Some death penalty supporters will undoubtedly mention that a majority of the state’s citizens still support the death penalty, but this is misleading. When residents are asked to choose between the viable alternatives, what the legislature did was in fact consistent with public opinion:
Where there is a discernable shift underway — and what has partly driven the repeal in New Jersey — is when residents are offered an alternative; the death penalty, or life in prison without parole. Given the choice, New Jersey residents backed life without parole over the death penalty, 52 percent to 39 percent.
This abolition is the formalization of existing practice; New Jersey hasn’t executed anybody since 1963. I think it’s worth noting that although the death penalty is often cited as a uniquely American phenomenon among current liberal democracies, it’s really a regional eccentricity; the vast majority of executions since 1976 have taken place in 5 states, and many states that keep it on the books rarely use it. Unusually harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses, conversely, are a truly national phenomenon.