Saturday, December 22, 2007

If Florida could follow New Jersey's lead . .

Practicality. Justice. Morality. These three forces combined this week in New Jersey, when Gov. Jon Corzine signed that state's historic ban on the death penalty. It is the first state in the nation to legislatively abandon the death penalty as an antiquated, arbitrary and illogical penalty. It should not stand alone.

Unlike Florida, New Jersey hasn't conducted an execution since 1963 and seemed unlikely to do so any time soon. Yet the state -- like Florida -- has spent millions in death-penalty litigation, sending families of murder victims on a seemingly never-ending emotional roller coaster.

Even before he was elected, Corzine never made any secret of his opposition to capital punishment (a fact that undermines the belief that the public won't support anti-death-penalty candidates). But the state didn't leap into the debate over the death penalty blindly. Instead, the Legislature convened a study commission that looked at all angles of the death penalty and finally -- citing the weight of evidence against it -- recommended abolition. The commission's report included several conclusions:

· There's no evidence that executions serve "legitimate penological intent." Capital punishment doesn't serve as a deterrent to murder, especially when it's so arbitrarily applied.

· It costs more to administer the death penalty than it does to keep someone in prison for the rest of his or her life. The commission considered emotional as well as monetary costs in its calculation.

· The death penalty is increasingly out of step with "evolving standards of decency." Polls show public support slipping for capital punishment, especially when pollsters include the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

· Abolishing the death penalty could reduce inequities in sentencing. The commission didn't find persuasive evidence of racial bias, but did find that death sentences were often unrelated to the severity of the crime for which the condemned was executed. More likely predictors: Poverty and the quality of the accused's legal representation.

· Society's interest in executing convicted murderers is outweighed by the high probability of executing an innocent person. This statement was bolstered by the recent rash of sentences overturned by DNA evidence -- and the sure knowledge that many more cases might never be overturned because DNA wasn't preserved or never existed.

· Life in prison without the possibility of parole is just as effective in protecting the public.

The commission wasn't asked to address the horrific spectacle of botched executions, or the lingering doubts that lethal injection -- the execution method most commonly used in the United States -- could in fact be a torturous death for many prisoners.

These arguments should be just as persuasive in Florida, which has led the nation in overturned convictions and has more reason than most states to doubt the guilt of those on death row: 25 condemned men have been freed since 1973. Yet state leaders show little interest in following New Jersey's footsteps. What will it take for one Florida leader to find the courage to speak out against this ongoing injustice -- and to work to put an end to state-sanctioned killing?

Corzine gave a passionate speech before signing the historic legislation in which he quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation." Florida has yet to evolve. For the sake of justice, it should.

An Editorial from the Daytona Beach News Journal, published December 21, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Long Time Coming

It took 31 years, but the moral bankruptcy, social imbalance, legal impracticality and ultimate futility of the death penalty has finally penetrated the consciences of lawmakers in one of the 37 states that arrogates to itself the right to execute human beings.

This week, the New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed a law abolishing the death penalty, and Gov. Jon Corzine, a staunch opponent of execution, promised to sign the measure very soon. That will make New Jersey the first state to strike the death penalty from its books since the Supreme Court set guidelines for the nation’s system of capital punishment three decades ago.

Some lawmakers voted out of principled opposition to the death penalty. Others felt that having the law on the books without enforcing it (New Jersey has had a moratorium on executions since 2006) made a mockery of their argument that it has deterrent value. Whatever the motivation of individual legislators, by forsaking a barbaric practice that grievously hurts the global reputation of the United States without advancing public safety, New Jersey has set a worthy example for the federal government, and for other states that have yet to abandon the creaky, error-prone machinery of death.

New Jersey’s decision to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole seems all the wiser coming in the middle of a month that has already seen the convictions of two people formerly on death row in other states repudiated. In one case, the defendant was found not guilty following a new trial.

The momentum to repeal capital punishment has been building in New Jersey since January, when a 13-member legislative commission recommended its abolition. The panel, which included two prosecutors, a police chief, members of the clergy and a man whose daughter was murdered in 2000, cited serious concerns about the imperfect nature of the justice system and the chance of making an irreversible mistake. The commission also concluded, quite correctly, that capital punishment is both a poor deterrent and “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”

By clinging to the death penalty, states keep themselves in the company of countries like Iran, North Korea and China — a disreputable pantheon of human mistreatment. Small wonder the gyrations of New Jersey’s Legislature have been watched intently by human rights activists around the world.

Spurred in large part by the large and growing body of DNA-based exonerations, there is increasing national unease about the death penalty. The Supreme Court is poised to consider whether lethal injections that torture prisoners in the process of killing them amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, an exercise bound to put fresh focus on some of the ugly details of implementing capital punishment.

In a sense, the practical impact of New Jersey’s action may be largely symbolic. Although there are eight people on New Jersey’s death row, the moratorium was in place, and the state has not put anyone to death since 1963. Nevertheless, it took political courage for lawmakers to join with Governor Corzine. Their renunciation of the death penalty could prick the conscience of elected officials in other states and inspire them to muster the courage to revisit their own laws on capital punishment.

At least that is our fervent hope.

A New York Times Editorial published December 15, 2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

States Rethinking Harsh Juvenile Crime Laws

One size fits all justice never works. States that in the past enacted tough laws charging juveniles as adults and in many cases throwing them in prison for life without a key are now rethinking these laws.

They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

States considering changes: Colorado, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Illinois. The article is filled with details.

America can't jail itself out of its juvenile crime problem. We can't keep putting law enforcement and punishment over prevention.

The expertise of the family court and the juvenile court system serves a vital function in our society. As I wrote back in 1998 when Congress was considering some ill-advised juvenile crime legislation:

The value of prevention over the pure "lock-em-up" mentality was shown by a Rand Corporation projection: While a $1 million investment in new prisons would prevent 60 serious crimes a year, the same $1 million, if invested in parent training, could prevent 160 serious crimes a year. And if the same amount were spent on graduation incentives for disadvantaged students, there might be 258 fewer serious crimes a year.

It's time to get smarter, not tougher about crime.

By Jeralyn TALK LEFT posted Saturday December 1, 2007