Saturday, October 1, 2016

Some misperceptions about the death penalty

-- Cost
-- Deterrence
-- Closure

An arbitrary judicial system which sometimes gets it wrong
There has been one death row exoneration for every eleven executions.

Eighteen states and Washington D.C. have now abolished the death penalty. Internationally 136 out of 195 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. A country cannot belong to the European Union if it allows the death penalty. Circumstances change and public opinion is beginning to change. The Democratic platform for the current 2016 presidential election includes a plank for abolishing the death penalty. There have also been some misperceptions about the death penalty related to the issues of cost, deterrence, closure, and the confidence placed in our legal system.

The first misperception is that it is more expensive to sentence someone to life imprisonment without parole compared to giving the death penalty. A death penalty case with all of its delays and appeals, however, is more expensive and often much more expensive.

An Urban Institute study found the cost of a death penalty trial to be $1.9 million more than a trial not involving the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that, in Texas, "a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years."

The second apparent misperception is that the death penalty is a significant deterrent. Studies on this have differed or been ambiguous. In general, however, there is not a higher rate of murder in those states and countries that don’t have the death penalty.

When signing the bill that abolished the death penalty in the State of Illinois, Governor Quinn wrote, “I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder” Life imprisonment without parole is a reasonable and effective alternative for keeping our communities safe.

Concerning a third misperception related to closure, Governor Quinn wrote, “To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims’ families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold. But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain. Nothing can do that. We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims’ families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.” Furthermore some consideration should be given to the lawyers, prosecutors, judges and juries who become involved in a death penalty conviction and those who are responsible for carrying it out. Many of those who of necessity become involved may have religious or other reservations,

The medical profession, for example, with its primary moral concept of a respect for human dignity and the admonition to “do no harm,” has opposed physician participation in executions in its ethical code. Furthermore, killing someone in a “humane” way has proven to be difficult. The electric chair was abandoned in Florida after an execution was botched and the prisoner’s head burst into six inch flames. There have been difficulties with the IV administration of drugs and with both the kind and the availability of the drugs. Those physicians who do become involved in the process in some states are often provided confidentiality. Participation in the conviction and execution of a person in a death penalty case can be a source of significant conflict for some rather than closure.

A fourth concern is a misplaced perception that our legal system always gets it right. Between 1976 and 2016 the number of Death Row exonerations nationally was 156. Governor Quinn also wrote. “...I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 primarily as a result of a series of revelations that 20 people since 1977 in their state had been sent to Death Row who were later exonerated. In the period from 1976 to 2016 there was one Death Row prisoner in the United States who was exonerated for about every nine Death Row prisoners who were executed. Mistakes are inevitable and an execution is irreversible.

Abolishing the death penalty would also be a step forward in addressing some of the trust issues between our minority communities and the justice system. There are thus many reasons why the death penalty in the United States should be reconsidered and abolished. What isn’t discussed much is why the death penalty in the United States should be abolished as a matter of foreign policy.