By: Daylin Leach
Soon, I will be introducing legislation to abolish the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania. New Jersey and New Mexico have recently abolished their Death Penalty laws and other states are contemplating doing the same. Polls show a 15-20% drop in support for Capital Punishment nationwide and juries in state after state are increasingly reluctant to sentence defendants to death, imposing only 106 death sentences in 2009, down from a high of 328 in 1994.
What is driving this dissipation of support for our ultimate punishment and why do I feel that my abolition bill will ultimately succeed where previous attempts have not? As a liberal, I must admit that both the sea change in attitudes and my optimism come from the increasing skepticism of Capital Punishment on the part of conservatives.
There are well known “liberal” arguments for eliminating the death penalty, i.e. it is inhumane, immoral and disproportionately imposed upon racial minorities and the poor. But what has changed the dynamic is the newfound traction of “conservative” arguments against the death penalty.
The First Principle of modern conservatism is reducing the size and cost of government. Viewed through that prism, the Death Penalty is just another government program that is too expensive and just not working. Imposing death costs between 2 and 3 million dollars more per defendant than life in prison. Nationwide, only about one out of 10 death sentences is ultimately carried out, raising the cost of each execution to between 20 and 30 million dollars, or in some cases much more.
What are the taxpayers getting for their money? Not much. In the modern era, California has executed 13 people at a cost of $250 million per execution. Maryland has spent $186 million to execute 5 people. In Pennsylvania we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars putting 355 people on death row, but have only executed 3 people in the past 48 years, all of whom asked to be executed. Noted conservative leader Richard Viguerie recently opined “I don’t understand why more conservatives don’t oppose the death penalty. . . [It] is, after all, a system set up under laws established by politicians. Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any.government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice.”
Beyond that, even states with the highest execution rates have not seen their murder rates drop disproportionately to demographically similar states without the death penalty. In fact, the states with the highest execution rates (such as Texas and Oklahoma) continue to have murder rates above the national average.
Another problem with the death penalty is that its error rate is unacceptably high for a penalty of such finality. Since 1973, over 130 people have been freed from death row after being found completely innocent of the charges that sent them there (often, but not always, through DNA testing). While we have executed 3 people in Pennsylvania, we’ve also released 6 innocent men from death row.
Clearly we have a flawed system that cannot be relied upon when human lives are at stake. James Fry, the conservative former District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas said, “For years I supported capital punishment, but I have come to believe that our criminal justice system is incapable of adequately distinguishing between the innocent and guilty. It is reprehensible and immoral to gamble with life and death.”
Mr. Frey is not alone in questioning the death penalty from the perspective of law enforcement. A Peter Hart survey of police chiefs found that the death penalty is ineffective at reducing violent crime, is too expensive, and detracts from more effective law enforcement tools. This is why an increasing number of police and DA Associations are endorsing abolition.
By any reasonable measure, Capital Punishment is a failed government program. It costs too much; it provides little if anything in return and it fails to respect the “culture of life” that conservatives often speak of with great passion. This is why people across the political spectrum, are demanding that we end a big-government experiment that simply does not work.