Crime & Punishment

New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. Now, two senators say it’s time to reconsider the ban.

Photo by Jonas Voss/Eyeem Getty Images

The death penalty was abolished in New Jersey in 2007 and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A commission of judges, prosecutors and others had recommended the ban, citing cost and other factors, such as DNA testing that raised questions about certain convictions. Even before it was abolished, the death penalty was rarely used here. The last execution in the Garden State—by electrocution—took place in 1963.

Now, two state Senators, Jeff  Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), want to reexamine the death penalty. They  have introduced legislation in an effort to reignite a discussion around this controversial topic.

“Things have happened across the country,” says Oroho. “Terrorism, attacks on law enforcement, sexual crimes involving a murder.  These are heinous crimes, and a conversation about the death penalty might be able to sway some of the public’s viewpoint of the deterrent effect of capital punishment.”

The legislation introduced by Oroho and Van Drew is designed for specific, heinous acts, such as the murder of a law-enforcement or corrections officer on duty, killing a child during a sex crime, terrorism, serial killings, and crimes involving a perpetrator previously convicted of murder.

Beyond the emotional and visceral response one might have to such horrific crimes, there is the practical issue of cost. At the time the death penalty was abolished in New Jersey, the annual price tag for keeping an inmate on death row was $72,000 for each prisoner, compared to $40,000 a year to keep them in the general prison population.  “When looking at the cost of death row, the deterrent effect is hard to measure,” says Oroho. However, he adds, “it is important to have a safe community, and to recognize the deterrent as a valuable part in helping to make it a safe community.”

Others in the Legislature say the matter is settled. “Recent events are not the result of the lack of capital punishment,” says Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Senate majority leader. “It has been proven time and time again that the death penalty is not a deterrent.”

Weinberg agrees that debate can be useful, but says the Legislature has higher-priority issues to address. “The killing of police officers is awful, and we need to deal with the people who do it, and we need to make sure they get severe punishment,” says Weinberg. “We need to deal with the prevalence of guns in our society that sometimes enable these killings to take place more easily. We need to deal with gun trafficking.”

For the most part, Democrats in the Legislature oppose the death penalty. Since they control both houses, it is unlikely the legislation will go far. Initially, it would face a tough fight in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But beyond the politics, there is the question of right and wrong. I’ve often pondered the death penalty. My gut says reinstate it—particularly for such heinous crimes. Another part of me is not convinced that capital punishment truly deters such crimes. Nor am I certain that government-sanctioned killing, even for the most horrific crimes, is acceptable in a humane society. Further, we know mistakes have been made in states where the death penalty is legal. Innocent people have been put to death. When this happens, there is no recourse.

It’s a tough issue worthy of periodic discussion. If you had to vote on the death penalty for the crimes listed in the current legislation, what would you do? Write to me at [email protected].

Read more Steve Adubato: Only in NJ articles.

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