Trends and Transitions: June 2009
Death Penalty Under Examination
In March, New Mexico abolished the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Lawmakers were influenced by a fiscal report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee citing research by the Public Defender Department. The research indicated the state would save millions of dollars each year in prosecution costs for capital cases. New Mexico has executed one person since 1960, and two men remain on death row. The new law will not affect their sentences.
New Mexico is the second state to abolish capital punishment since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. New Jersey did so in December 2007. Fifteen states now do not have a death penalty.
The death penalty is being debated in other states, as well. The House of Representatives in New Hampshire and Colorado both have recently passed measures to repeal the death penalty. In Montana, the Senate passed a bill to ban capital punishment, but the House Judiciary Committee voted against it. The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation limiting capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession or a videotape linking the defendant to the homicide. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill.
Getting Americans to Buckle Up
Buckling up is the quickest and least expensive way to reduce death and injuries on the nation’s highways. Primary seat belt laws allow police to stop and ticket a motorist if the driver and passengers are not buckled up. “Non-conforming” primary laws allow exceptions for some vehicles, such as pick-up trucks. Twenty-seven states have primary laws, although Georgia’s law, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is nonconforming.
Secondary seat belt laws allow police to issue a citation only if the driver is first stopped for another infraction. Twenty-two states have secondary laws. New Hampshire has no adult seat belt law.
The federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users provides money to states that boost their seat belt use either by passing a primary seat belt law or maintaining a seat belt use rate of 85 percent or better for two consecutive years. The money can be used for any highway safety-related purpose. No state match is required.
But time is running out; the program expires at the end of June. So far, Arkansas has passed and Massachusetts and Wisconsin are close to passing primary laws.
States already with primary laws automatically receive a portion of the funds.
In-State Tuition for Immigrants
Heated emotional debates have filled legislative halls in several states this session over whether to allow undocumented students to attend college at in-state tuition rates. With the faltering economy and limited skills-based jobs, improving college affordability is becoming a bigger priority. But not everyone is in agreement on who should have access to college.
Since 2001, 10 states—California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington—have passed laws allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public institutions, provided they meet certain requirements. In general, students must live in the state, have attended high school for a specified period (one to three years), and have graduated or received their GED.
Arizona, Colorado and Georgia laws specifically prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates. South Carolina goes one step further and prohibits undocumented students from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution.
This year, at least 45 bills have been introduced on this topic in 23 states, with some allowing and some prohibiting in-state tuition. Alabama, Nevada and West Virginia have “Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act” legislation in committee that would prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition or financial aid.
Florida, Maryland and Tennessee are considering legislation in favor of in-state tuition eligibility. Similar measures, however, have failed this year in Arkansas, Colorado and Virginia.
Supporters argue that, since these students have grown up in the United States, improving their chances to attend college will only fuel economic growth and decrease reliance on state services.
Opponents argue that illegal behavior should not be rewarded, and that the legislation violates federal law.
Laws in California and Kansas allowing in-state tuition have been brought to court on the grounds that they are in violation of federal law. Kansas’s case was dismissed; California’s law is currently under review in the state Supreme Court.
For now it seems the controversy will continue. At the recent hearing in Colorado, both sides were vocal. Senator Nancy Spence said the bill would be “aiding and abetting illegal immigration,” while Senator Abel Tapia argued that these students deserved to have the opportunity to become more than “ditch diggers and dishwashers.”
Keeping Kids Healthy
During the past 40 years, the obesity rate for children ages 6 to 11 has more than quadrupled (from 4.2 percent to 17 percent). And for adolescents ages 12 to 19, it has more than tripled (from 4.6 percent to 17.6 percent). Obese refers to children and adolescents who have a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for their gender and age. Almost 12 million children and adolescents are obese, and more than 23 million young people are obese or overweight—nearly one in three. They are at increased risk for asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other serious, even life-threatening, illnesses.
The Happiness Index
MainStreet.com looked at household income, debt, employment rates and foreclosures, and ranked states on how well they are weathering the current economic storm.
THE TOP FIVE STATES
THE BOTTOM FIVE STATES