Scholars have suggested ways that Biden might promote a bipartisan consensus. Harvard law professor Carol Steiker recently told me the president could create a blue-ribbon commission to study the death penalty, which would ultimately “offer practical grounds to limit or abolish it to those who do not oppose it on principle.” (Obama promised a similar study but never delivered.) Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, suggested that the Biden administration prioritize funding for the defense of military veterans facing the death penalty in state courts, since their crimes can often be traced to PTSD and head injuries from their service. It’s easy to imagine how this might further erode death penalty support on the right.
Democrats will now face a political choice. They can attempt a big, quick win, or they can try to bring the trend of conservative opposition from statehouses up to Congress, setting off a deeper conversation about mercy and rehabilitation that might apply to the broader criminal justice system. The seeds of a reckoning are here; it was Donald Trump who, after signing a bipartisan measure to reduce the federal prison population, announced, “America is a nation that believes in redemption.”