THERE IS, in the political worlds an unfortunate tendency to pass the buck. Take for example, Tuesday's decision by the state legislature's Criminal Justice Committee to put a proposed death penalty bill on hold by sending it to the Ways and Means Committee for refinement. The boys at Justice are calculating they won't have to deal with the legislation again until after a state wide amendment to the constitution on the death sentence goes before the voters in November. Then should Massachusetts residents decide they want the chair the legislature will only be too happy to comply, its members assured they are on the "right" side of the issue.
Justice committee members would have been better advised and more courageous to reject the bill and request the creation of a commission to take an in depth look at the death penalty's pros and cons. As many people have pointed out, capital punishment has not been subject to intense legislative scrutiny for over 20 years. In 1959, a statehouse study commission recommended against it.
There is of yet no hard statistical evidence that shows the death penalty to be a deterrent to crime. Some students citing that the climate of violence in society is actually worsened by the imposition of capital punishment prove the opposite. The bottom line remains that we do not know the value of the ultimate sentence.
We do, however know its drawbacks. This Summer John Kerry a lawyer and now the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor defended Georges Reissfelder Reissfelder a convicted murderer who had already served 16 years in prison was subsequently released by the state, which had come to believe in his innocence. Had Reissfelder been sentenced to die vindication would have served him little.
The real problem with any discussion of the death penalty is emotion. In a fearful society: radical solution to dilemmas are easily called for. So when we read every day of more and more violent crimes and we get the impression justice is more concerned with the victimizer than the victim capital punishment takes on a greater appeal. Cool Calculated study gives way to the passion of the moment.
Which is why the legislature should not jump to any conclusions if voters call for the death penalty in November. Because not enough has been said about the issue people will be insufficiently informed and hence hard depressed to make a rational decision.
The best idea might be for the legislature to take a hard look at existing laws. When a convicted murderer gets out of prison after serving only a few years of his penance something is wrong with the system. Making life imprisonment stick would no doubt cut down crime as much as capital punishment.
In the meantime we can only give the legislature thumbs down for its noble act on Tuesday. Going with the flow may be politically smart. But it isn't right.