Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Let's do the time warp again!



(I do realize that I've mixed my movie references. Just go with it.)

A friend of the ACLU of PA from an ally organization has said publicly that the state legislature is typically ten years behind the rest of the country. We can quibble over just how far behind the General Assembly is, but his point is well taken.

Early in the 2011-12 session, we've already had two reminders that our legislators are behind the times.

House Bill 41/Senate Bill 9: These pieces of legislation would require an applicant for public aid to show a government-issued identification before receiving that aid. Currently, most applicants show ID, but if they do not have it, the issuing department will work with them to get other records to establish ID.

The bill is framed as a way to stop people without papers from getting public aid, but there is no evidence that is actually happen. There is plenty of evidence, though, that a significant percentage of the citizen population does not have government-issued ID. According to the Brennan Center at NYU, 11 percent of US citizens do not have government-issued ID, and they are disproportionately the elderly, the working poor, and black adults. (pdf)

Colorado tried this in 2006 and lost money doing it. The state spent $2 million to implement the program and didn't save any money. Since then, some states have altered their verification process but without the ID requirement.

But here in PA the supporters of HB 41 and SB 9 continue to plow forward. Oh, and the Rendell administration estimated that these bills would cost $19 million to implement.

House Bill 308: At least with HB 41 and SB 9, what we've learned from other states is a relatively new phenomenon. When it comes to the death penalty, some of our state legislators are stuck in 1996.

House Bill 308 addresses capital cases in which the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict on the sentence. Under current law, if the jury is not unanimous, the judge implements a sentence of life without parole. This happened in a recent trial in Philadelphia in which the defendant was convicted of killing a police officer. Seven jurors wanted life and five wanted death.

HB 308 is the response to that trial. This bill would require a court to seat a new jury to hear another penalty phase argument. There is a mountain of evidence that shows that the death penalty is more costly than even life without parole. In the last three years, New Jersey and New Mexico repealed capital punishment, in part due to its large financial burden, and the Illinois legislature has passed a repeal bill, which awaits the governor's signature.

If HB 308 becomes law, it would only add to that huge payout that the commonwealth pays for the privilege (?) of maintaining the death penalty.

California has a law like this. It drags out the capital trial process, and it is expensive and painful to victims' families. The LA Times recently featured a story on the mother and grandmother of murder victims who is struggling to continue through the trial process and wants the prosecution to stop pursuing death. She just wants it to end.

They say adults have to hear something seven times before they learn it. Clearly, we advocates have our work cut out for us in bringing our legislators into this decade.

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