HB379: Controversial bill would eliminate death penalty in Utah

As of 2016, 19 states had abolished the death penalty, mostly concentrated in the northeast states. If passed, HB379 would abolish it in Utah as well. (Haley Mosher)

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that would make it illegal for the state to seek the death penalty.

HB379 has began its way through the Legislature. It passed in House committee on Feb. 21.

HB379 is at the beginning stages of the legislative process and passed in House committee on Feb. 21. (Rachel Andrews)

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said the bill originated when he read about the staggering cost of the death penalty in a recent report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The report estimates Utah spent $40 million on 165 death-eligible cases between 1997 and 2016. Only two of the 165 cases resulted in death sentences.

“It became clear in my mind that we really need to examine the policy,” Froerer said. 

BYU law professor Stephanie Bair said the move to abolish the death penalty in Utah is not surprising, in part because of declining public support.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center found American support for the death penalty was at its lowest point in four decades.

Bair also said many states have abolished the death penalty because there is no reliable evidence showing the death penalty deters people from committing murders.

“I would say that many people who support the death penalty take a retributivist stance,” Bair said. “They believe that people who commit certain crimes deserve to die, regardless of whether their death ever deters someone else from committing the same crime in the future.”

Bair said it is up to the Utah Legislature to decide if retribution is worth the costs of maintaining the death penalty.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, is one of the four representatives who opposed the bill in committee.

“For me, it’s really not a matter of cost,” Acton said. “I don’t think justice should be determined by cost.”

Acton said when she was deciding how to vote on the bill, “oppressed” was the only word that came to her mind.

“I believe that society is oppressed by crime, and society sometimes has to say, ‘no’,” Acton said. “There are limits. The limit is depraved murder. It can’t be tolerated.” 

Acton also said the Legislature should wait to make the decision until a later session. Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, sponsors HB70, which directs a study to analyze the costs of the death penalty compared to lifetime sentencing.

“We might as well wait until we have that study,” Acton said. “Good data drives good policy, as they always say over here.” 

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