The Death Penalty

                For those of you who don’t know, there are 139 countries around the world that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Among these are many European countries as well as Australia and Canada.  The United States of America is not among those countries.

                Currently, there are 16 states that have abolished the death penalty (I was glad to learn that Maine abolished the death penalty back in the 1800’s). However, the remaining 34 states retain the right to put people to death (unfortunately Virginia is among them.)

 

                Some would say that the death penalty is as American as apple pie, why should we get rid of it now? To answer that question we should start by first looking at our wallets…

                Okay, brace yourselves for this one: The death penalty costs more than life in prison. That’s right; you can house a prison inmate in a super max prison for life instead of putting them to death and you will save not thousands, but millions per case. In 2003 Kansas did a legislative audit of their judicial system and found that from start to finish of an average death penalty case; Kansas spent 70% more than they would have for an average life-sentence case.

                In Maryland the state found that each death penalty case had an average cost of about $3 million. That is more than three times the cost of the most expensive non-death penalty cases in their state. But here is the scariest one…

                California did a study of their judicial system and found that the current system costs $137 million a year. Their calculations found that a system without the death penalty would cost them $11.5 million a year.

                To put that in perspective, across the country we have states cutting funding for social security, state-sponsored medical coverage, and education. If California is any example, the death penalty eats up a vast majority of a state government’s necessary judicial budget. If states eliminated the death penalty, they could spend more money on building schools or paying teachers better, or even creating government jobs to get people back to work, without having to raise taxes a penny to balance it out.

                Too often I have heard the crude argument that “If executions cost so much, then save some money and just use a bullet”. Although a patriotic firing squad brought to you in part by the 2nd amendment could save a hundred bucks or so, the real cost of the death penalty does not come from the execution itself, but the court cases and the appeals process (an appeals process that has saved the lives of over 130 innocent men that were sentenced to death row since the 70’s). To put it simply, you can’t save money with the death penalty. Period.

                Now there are two sentences that intend to make sure that there are no opportunities for a criminal to get back on the streets. One is the death penalty, the other is a life sentence. The life sentence is the logical choice because not only is it millions of dollars cheaper, but there is also no risk that the state sponsors killing an innocent person. (but I’ll get to that in a little bit)

 

What about the argument of deterrence? You would think that the death penalty would scare people in states with the death penalty, thereby making them less likely to commit crimes that could get them on death row. Right?

                Wrong. Actually New York Times did some statistical research and found in 2000 that since 1980 homicide rates in states with the death penalty were 48% to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty. For example, Louisiana has a murder rate that is more than double that of Michigan (I picked Michigan because you can find Detroit over there). Michigan doesn’t have a death penalty, Louisiana does.

                One of the more disturbing trends of the death penalty is its selective use. Most people currently on death row could not afford their own attorney which means that they received council from a court-appointed attorneys. Court-appointed attorneys are notoriously over-worked and underpaid resulting in an inability for them to be able to put as much effort into a case as they would want to.

                It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to seek the death penalty. They are far more likely to seek the death penalty if the victim is white than if they are any other racial ethnicity besides Caucasian, despite the fact that nearly 50% of murder victims are black, 77% of victims of crimes that resulted in a death row conviction were white since 1976. Furthermore, since it is the local prosecutor that decides whether to seek the death penalty or not, local politics, location of the crime, plea bargaining, and pure chance dictates whether a person can be sentenced to the death penalty or not, making the system in death penalty states a quasi-lottery for people who might face the death penalty.

                Finally, since prosecutors have a hand in picking the make-up of the jury, when there is an African-American defendant it is common practice for those prosecutors, especially in the south to aim for an all-white jury. 2007 Yale Law studies on the death penalty led to conclusions that there are still major racial disparities that plague the system.

                Finally, and by far the most important problem is that innocent people have been given the death sentence, and innocent people have been executed in the United States. As I mentioned above, there have been over 130 people who were found innocent after they were put on death row since the 1970’s. 15 people have been exonerated after they were executed in the United States, and there are 39 people that have been executed where there was still evidence of innocence or reasonable doubt.

 The death penalty costs more than life in prison, it has a risk of executing innocent people, it is not an effective deterrent, and it is a fundamentally discriminatory system. Logically it does not make sense. So why do we keep doing it?

               A common argument by people who support the death penalty is a question: “If your family was raped and murdered by some guy, wouldn’t you want him dead?” For all but the most saintly of us, the answer to that question would be yes, logic doesn’t really matter anymore. But why? …Because the death penalty is not a logical system. It is an emotional revenge-based system that does nothing but extend a cycle of pain and wrongs.

                Is the taking of an innocent life an acceptable “margin of error”? We need to put the death penalty in perspective, we live in a representative democracy. That means that the government is supposed to represent the people, as the judicial system is a branch of the government that represents us so too are the actions that it takes. If a democracy kills one of its people, it is representing the citizens killing that person. We The People are morally accountable for every execution that takes place.

                A person does not have the right to take another person’s life. It doesn’t matter who the person is. A government, especially a democracy, does not have that right either. We cannot kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong. And an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.

                If you have actually read through all of this, I commend you. The death penalty is not that fun to talk about or read about. However, it is very real and still accepted. It doesn’t have to be that way. No matter what your politics, it is not a hard decision. If you are pro-life then it is a no-brainer, if you are a fiscal conservative then just look at the cost, if you are a liberal just think about the inherent inequality of the system. The death penalty is just an absolute wrong.

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