Fonda Shen | Joe Biden: The First Abolitionist President

By Fonda Shen

“Eliminate the death penalty. Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated. Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”[1]

President Joe Biden is the first US president to explicitly declare that he is against the death penalty prior to or during his time in office. Although former presidential candidates and the Democratic Party platform in 2016 stated their opposition to the death penalty, President Biden is the first US president to take office as an abolitionist.

There have been US presidents in the past who spoke out against the death penalty after they left office. President Jimmy Carter has been a vocal advocate against the death penalty in recent years, but he did not voice opposition against the practice while he was in office. His current stance is also notable given his role in reinstating the death penalty post-Furman. In 1976, as the governor of Georgia, he signed into law the death penalty guidelines that the US Supreme Court later found constitutional in Gregg v. Georgia, which reintroduced the death penalty in the United States after four years without the practice. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, President Carter said:

“If I had to do that over again I would certainly be much more forceful in taking actions what would have prohibited the death penalty…In complete honesty, when I was governor [of Georgia] I was not nearly as concerned about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more parochial point of view – I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now.”[2]

President Rutherford B. Hayes also came to oppose the death penalty after his presidency, when he became very passionate about prison reform and very vocal about the link between poverty and crime.[3]

Furthermore, President Obama publicly recognized problems with the death penalty, in contrast with his predecessors, who have championed the practice without reservation.[4] In an interview with The Marshall Project, he acknowledged that there were severe racial biases reflected in the death penalty and errors that resulted in exoneration. But despite these flaws in the implementation of the death penalty, he nevertheless maintained that the death penalty in theory has a unique value. “This is something that I’ve struggled with for quite some time,” Obama said. “There are certain crimes that are so beyond the pale that I understand society’s need to express its outrage… I’ve not been opposed to the death penalty in theory, but in practice it’s deeply troubling.”[5]

So President Biden is the first president to take office explicitly opposed to the death penalty.

In 2016, the Democratic Party took a similar view. The official Democratic Party Platform that year stated:

“We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America. The application of the death penalty is arbitrary and unjust. The cost to taxpayers far exceeds those of life imprisonment. It does not deter crime. And, exonerations show a dangerous lack of reliability for what is an irreversible punishment.”[6]

And following the platform, all presidential candidates, except Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, in the most recent Democratic presidential primaries, in 2020, stated that they were against the death penalty.

However, this stance had destroyed candidates in the past. In the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis stated in a presidential debate that even if his wife were raped and murdered, he would not support the death penalty for the perpetrator.[7] His support plummeted after this statement, and he would go on to lose the election to George H.W. Bush.

President Biden was instrumental in the passage of the notoriously harsh 1994 crime bill, which added dozens of death-eligible offenses. In 1992, while pushing for this bill, he said: “we do everything but hang people for jaywalking.”[8] Although he had once considered the bill to be his most significant accomplishment, he declared it to be a mistake during the 2020 election.[9]

As the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden is now the first American president to oppose the death penalty while in office. He should begin by commuting the sentences of the men who are already on federal death row, abolish the federal death penalty, and ensure the abolition of the death penalty across the country.

Notes

[1] “The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” accessed January 21, 2021, https://joebiden.com/justice/.

[2] Ed Pilkington, “Jimmy Carter calls for fresh moratorium on death penalty,” The Guardian, November 11, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/11/jimmy-carter-supreme-court-death-penalty.

[3] “Rutherford B. Hayes,” PRESIDENTIAL podcast, Washington Post, May 22, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9vVL32BHaA. Transcript: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/podcasts/presidential/pdfs/rutherford-b-hayes-transcript.pdf.

[4] In a 1992 presidential debate, Bill Clinton said that Democrats “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent,” and flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector a few days later to demonstrate his tough-on-crime stance. Perry Bacon Jr., “In a First, Democrats’ Platform tp Call for Death Penalty Abolition,” NBC News, July 10, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/first-democrats-platform-call-death-penalty-abolition-n605946.   George W. Bush has stated in the past that the death penalty “helps save innocent lives.” “Bush Says Death Penalty Saves Innocent Lives,” Fox19Now, December 2, 2005, https://www.fox19.com/story/4194819/bush-says-death-penalty-saves-innocent-lives/.

[5] “Exclusive: Obama Calls The Death Penalty ‘Deeply Troubling,’” The Marshall Project, October 23, 2015, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/10/23/watch-obama-discuss-death-penalty-racial-profiling-with-the-marshall-project#.zGz2bcYCV.

[6] 2016 Democratic Party Platform (Orlando: Democratic Platform Committee, July 9, 2016). https://democrats.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2016_DNC_Platform.pdf.

[7] “The Debate Answer That Ruined Dukakis in 1988,” NBC News, September 22, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/video/the-debate-answer-that-ruined-dukakis-in-1988-771168323868.

[8] Christopher Cadelago, “Biden appears to be softening his stance on the death penalty,” Politico, July 20, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/20/joe-biden-death-penalty-1371932.

[9] Max Greenwood, “Biden says crime bill was a ‘mistake’ during ABC town,” The Hill, October 15, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/521326-biden-says-1994-crime-bill-was-a-mistake-during-abc-town-hall.

Fonda Shen

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