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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Prosecutors Want Death Penalty Vote In 2016

Oregon Department of Corrections
File photo. Prosecutors in Washington state are calling on lawmakers to send a death penalty referendum to voters.

Prosecutors in Washington state want voters to decide in 2016 whether to keep or repeal the death penalty. It’s been 40 years since Washington voters last weighed-in on the death penalty. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says the time has come for voters to have another say on the subject.

“To us this is a perfect thing for people to vote on,” he said. “It’s a profound moral question. It’s something that an informed campaign could really help people understand, the pros and the cons of having a death penalty. And we ought to have a vote.”

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys issued a statement Thursday calling on lawmakers to send a death penalty referendum to voters.

The death penalty in Washington is currently on hold because of a moratorium imposed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. Efforts to repeal the death penalty have gone nowhere in the Washington legislature. But Satterberg says he’s hopeful a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers will support sending the question to voters.

Washington has executed five death row inmates since 1975, nine are currently on death row.

For the past seven years, Democratic state Representative Reuven Carlyle of Seattle has sponsored legislation to repeal the death penalty. He agrees the timing is right to revisit the issue because there are currently no pending death penalty trials in Washington.

However, Carlyle is not convinced the prosecutors’ desire for a vote of the people is the right approach.

“They’ve made a judgment on the tactical side, but I don’t know that it means those of us who prefer life in prison to the death penalty want to shift gears away from a legislative change,” Carlyle said, adding that serious consideration will be given to the prosecutors’ views.

The prosecutors' proposal may not even get that in the Republican-led Washington Senate. "I really think it would be more helpful for the prosecutors to take a position [on the death penalty] one way or another," said Republican state Senator Mike Padden, chair of the Law and Justice Committee.

Padden added that if Washington prosecutors want a public vote on the death penalty, the burden is on them to collect the requisite signatures to put it on the ballot as a citizen's initiative or initiative to the legislature. 

Asked if he would hold a hearing on a death penalty referendum next legislative session, Padden said it was unlikely unless the issue came over from the Democratic-led House.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."