EDITORIAL: Let the people decide

Nevada has the death penalty — yet it doesn’t really have the death penalty.

While capital punishment remains on the books, as a practical matter it is carried out in only extremely rare circumstances. The state has administered the ultimate punishment just 12 times since 1976. The last prisoner executed in Nevada died in 2006 by lethal injection.

Seemingly endless appeals in capital cases have effectively neutered and driven up the costs of such statutes in many jurisdictions. In addition, Nevada is currently unable to acquire the drugs necessary to conduct an execution — lethal injection is the only means proscribed under state law. A growing number of pharmaceutical companies now refuse on moral or business grounds to provide the substances needed to put a prisoner to death.

Nevertheless, 81 men inhabit death row at Ely State Prison.

Now comes Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, a Las Vegas Democrat, with a bill draft request to abolish capital punishment in Nevada. State Sen. Tick Segerblom, the Las Vegas Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also signed on to the proposal.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, has previously expressed support for capital punishment, which complicates Mr. Ohrenschall’s effort.

The Pew Research Center reports that support for the death penalty has fallen sharply in recent years. Nationally, U.S. executions in 2016 will be at their lowest level since 1991. Still, polls reveal that a majority of Americans favor capital punishment and it remains the law in 31 states.

In the past decade, six states — including Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois — have dropped the death penalty. Yet voters in other states —including California, Oklahoma and Nebraska — have supported initiatives strengthening death penalty statutes.

Passions run high on this question. Both opponents and supporters of capital punishment have a stable of valid arguments.

That’s why any change to Nevada’s law on this hot-button issue should reflect the will of the electorate. Rather than act unilaterally, Mr. Ohrenschall and other Nevada lawmakers who hope to abolish the death penalty should propose an amendment to the state constitution, which would require an affirmative vote of the people to succeed.

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