Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) on Tuesday said he is suspending the use of the death penalty over concerns that the punishment is being unfairly applied.
At a press conference Tuesday, Inslee said he will not commute the sentences of those on death row, nor will he issue pardons. Instead, he will issue reprieves, which stay executions until further notice.
“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee said in a statement first obtained by the Associated Press. “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”
Inslee’s move is not entirely unprecedented. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) issued a reprieve to one prisoner on his state’s death row last year. In 2011, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) put a moratorium on all executions. And in 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) commuted all death penalty sentences to life sentences.
“We do give this power. Clemency is a unique, almost singular power of the executive,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in an interview. “We know that when we elect certain people that this could happen. This is part of our system. It puts the question more glaringly, I think, in front of the people.”
On Tuesday, Inslee said he wanted Washington to “join a growing national conversation about capital punishment.”
Executions are currently on hold in 17 other states, in some cases because a state’s process for killing a condemned criminal is being challenged by the courts. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty, either by popular vote or through the legislature, including six in the last six years.
Nine people currently are on Washington’s death row. The state Supreme Court last month rejected a plea from a death row inmate convicted in the 1988 murder of a 12-year-old girl, setting in motion what could have been the state’s first execution in nearly four years.
The U.S. Supreme Court began allowing states to execute prisoners in 1972, and Washington reinstated its death penalty law in 1981. Since then, 32 people have been sentenced to death, but 18 of them have had their sentences converted to life in prison, Inslee’s office said. One was set free. The state has executed five condemned men.
“I want to acknowledge that there are many good protections built into Washington state’s death penalty law. But there have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment,” Inslee said in a statement. “There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”
The vast majority of executions in the U.S. happen in the South, according to statistics maintained by the DPIC. Since 1972, 1,116 of the 1,366 executions that took place in the U.S. have happened in Southern states. More than half the 39 executions that took place in 2013 happened in Texas and Florida.
But executions have been carried out less frequently in recent years, after peaking in 1999. That year, 98 prisoners were executed; in the last four years, fewer than 50 criminals were put to death per year.