May 20, 2022

President Joe Biden holds a face mask in hand as he participates in a CNN City Hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 16, 2021.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from civil rights groups and liberal members of Congress to keep his promise to end the death penalty.

While full abolition of the death penalty would require an act of Congress, activists say Biden can take immediate steps to roll back the practice that resumed at the federal level under former President Donald Trump. Almost a month after Biden’s tenure, they are urging him to take action.

“He has the authority to work hard to limit this punishment and make it much harder for a future government,” said Kristina Roth, attorney at Amnesty International USA. “We think it is important at this early stage in his administration to remind him of his authority.”

Biden is the first president to speak out against the death penalty and has repeatedly stated that criminal justice reform is a top priority for his administration.

One of the steps Biden could take unilaterally would be to commute the sentences of the 49 people on federal death row. In a letter sent earlier this month, 82 organizations, including many rights groups, urged Biden to do just that.

“As a candidate, you campaigned for a platform that aims to strengthen America’s commitment to justice, based on the core beliefs that we must eliminate racial, income and other differences and create a criminal justice system that does not focus on cruelty and Cruelty focuses punishment, but “redemption and rehabilitation,” wrote the organizations headed by the Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a February 9 letter.

“Now, as President, you have a unique opportunity to achieve these political goals immediately by using your pardon to commute the sentences of those on today’s federal death row,” they wrote.

Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, said in an email on Wednesday that “there is nothing new for us to add at the moment”. Gwin pointed out part of Biden’s campaign platform that is still available online. He pledged to “work to pass federal laws to eradicate the death penalty and motivate states to follow the example of the federal government.”

Roth said civil rights groups and the White House “are in constant communication to ensure our calls are heard”.

Crime calculation and execution frenzy

If Biden keeps his promise to roll back the death penalty, it will be a notable development from his Senate tenure, where he pushed hard and successfully for tougher penalties for crime, including the tightening of the death penalty.

Biden expanded the number of crimes the death penalty could be used for through his 1994 Crime Act, a legacy that was heavily criticized from the left during the Democratic primary. As President, he has pledged to push for more racial justice in the judicial system.

The campaign to eradicate the death penalty has spanned decades and presidencies. Former President Barack Obama at times appeared to be on the verge of calling for an end to the death penalty – ordering the Justice Department to review the matter – but ultimately disappointed activists.

The matter came to a head under Trump. In July 2019, the Republican restarted the federal program on the death penalty, which had been dormant for nearly two decades. The government executed 13 people who had been sentenced to death, including a few days before Biden took office.

In addition to urging Biden to commute federal death sentences immediately, activists have urged the Biden government to completely dismantle the execution chamber where the armed forces’ deaths were killed in Terre Haute, Indiana. They also want Biden to overturn the Trump-era fatal injection protocol and forbid federal attorneys from applying for the death penalty.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s death penalty project, said when the federal death penalty restarted under Trump it “showed the same problems we saw in states”.

“It’s racist and applies to people who have suffered indescribable trauma and mental illness and have been tried in juries that never heard the full story,” she said.

Stubbs noted that the Trump administration’s use of the death penalty in the Covid-19 era did further damage and spread the disease to those involved in the execution, as well as to observers and journalists.

“Our government was ready to spread disease and death to carry out these executions,” said Stubbs.

The Associated Press noted that the Trump administration’s wave of executions was likely classified as a coronavirus superspreader event.

Pushing for change

Democrats have already tabled a number of bills to end the federal death penalty. Representatives Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., And Adriano Espaillat, DN.Y., each came up with bills that would end the practice. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Has announced plans to introduce compatible legislation in the Senate.

It’s not clear, however, whether these bills will gain any importance among Republicans. Espaillat told reporters on Wednesday that he believed his legislation could “also be a bipartisan bill”.

“I know a lot of my Republican colleagues recognize this is wrong,” he said.

Some elected Republican state officials have moved away from the party’s acceptance of the death penalty, but for reasons often different from those of activists on the left.

Wyoming Republican Governor Mark Gordon told lawmakers last year that he was considering a moratorium on the death penalty because of its cost.

“It costs us about a million dollars every time it is brought up. These are just luxuries, luxuries that we can no longer afford,” Gordon said, according to the Associated Press.

Another Republican governor, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, resisted when local reporters tried to characterize him as a supporter of the death penalty last year. His government has declared an “unofficial moratorium” on executions, he told the Associated Press in December.

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