Kill Capital Punishment
By Stephen Tuttle | April 13, 2019
We're a nation that can't quite make up its mind about capital punishment.
Three years ago the Nebraska legislature did away with the death penalty, only to have voters restore it by referendum last year. Washington, New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Utah all considered capital punishment repeals without success in 2018. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 51% of respondents preferred life without parole over the death penalty, but 64% wanted to keep capital punishment available.
We still have 30 states, the federal government, and the military able to carry out a death sentence, but only 16 states have done so since 2009. The overwhelming majority of those have been in Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma, in that order. More than half of the capital cases in the country occur in just 2% of the counties, the majority in Harris County, Texas.
There are good reasons for states to reconsider capital punishment.
(Of course, the entire criminal justice system could use a good reformation. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world by any measurement. We only have 4.5% of the world's population, but with 2.3 million behind bars, a whopping 22 percent of the world's prison population. There isn't even room here to discuss sentencing disparity —rich vs. poor, white vs. black, man vs. woman — a topic worthy of its own column.)
The first is simple economics.
According to University of Kansas study, trials involving the death penalty can be as much as eight times more expensive than those involving life in prison and are 70% more expensive on average. In California, such trials cost a minimum of an additional $1 million. Most of that is taxpayer money; the majority of defendants in murder trials need public defenders. Even a guilty plea in a capital case, with no trial, is twice as expensive as a plea involving a life sentence.
Then, of course, there are appeals, the first round of which are often mandatory. The state must defend itself in those appeals. They can go on for years and years and then decades. There is a legitimate reason; since death is irretrievable, it's good we cross every t and dot every i.
Then there's the housing of condemned prisoners. They have their own death row, with enhanced security, single cells, more guards, and the costs add up — on average an additional $90,000 per year, per death row prisoner versus a prisoner in the general population. With 2,621 death row inmates — the number is somewhat fluid — that's nearly $236 million in extra annual spending for death penalty states.
More politicians at the federal level are becoming a little queasy because of the capital punishment company we keep. Only 33 countries still cling to the death penalty: Just Russia and Belarus employ it in Europe, and the Scandinavian countries we so admire don't even have life in prison much less capital punishment.
Instead, we're in league with a Who's Who of repressive, oppressive, non-democratic regimes. We executed more people last year than any country except China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, and Somalia. Not exactly the company we'd like to keep. (North Korea would likely be on this list, except we don't know how many they execute.)
There is also the deterrence issue, or lack thereof. A person executed will commit no additional crimes, but there is no evidence that execution will deter anyone else. Murderers rarely consider consequences until they're in handcuffs.
There is an additional issue. So far, 153 prisoners have been released from death row, their convictions overturned. A handful were weeks or days away from execution; one just a day. Some have been proven innocent, and others released because their convictions are now in doubt due to prosecutorial or police misconduct. Dozens more cases are under review by various innocence projects, law schools, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel willing to look at old cases with fresh eyes.
We're reasonably certain at least two people, one in Texas and another in Virginia, were executed for crimes they did not commit. The case in Texas, involving alleged arson, is especially compelling and troubling.
Michigan, to its credit, abolished capital punishment constitutionally, in 1847, the first state to do so. Our crime rate has not soared as a result, nor has it in the other 20 states without capital punishment. Texas doesn't have less crime because they execute more people.
The death penalty excites our most primal instincts: revenge for a heinous act. But it is ridiculously expensive, there is no evidence it deters future capital crimes, it puts us in company of countries notorious for human rights abuses, and, occasionally, it condemns innocent people. It creates new problems while solving none.
It's time we put capital punishment to death.