Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dollars for Death: Executions' moral, fiscal costs burden society

The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent to murder. Jurisdictions with capital punishment see no reduction in the rate of violent crime and the American south, where 80 percent of U.S. executions occur, has a considerably higher murder rate than the northeast, responsible for only 1 percent of American executions.

The death penalty is racially and economically biased. Murderers who kill Caucasians or can't afford private attorneys are more likely to be sentenced to death.

The death penalty creates a potential for irrevocable error. Florida leads the nation with 22 death row exonerations over the past 35 years, and it's almost a certainty that several innocent people were executed before DNA-testing technology became widespread.

The death penalty is barbaric. Most democratic countries have outlawed its use.

For a brief time, the second argument -- that the death penalty is racially biased -- convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw its practice. And the specter of executing people who were potentially innocent convinced then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2003 to commute the sentences of 167 people from death to life in prison.

But none of these points has ever convinced the average American that the death penalty is barbaric or wrong. And for the most part, their elected state leaders have followed along.

One argument is making headway, however -- and it's the most venal of considerations. Last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley told that state's Senate that enforcing the death penalty simply cost too much, with the average death-penalty prosecution and appeals costing three times as much as a murder case bringing a sentence of life in prison. Maryland lawmakers are seriously considering O'Malley's recommendation to drop capital punishment; Montana and New Mexico are looking at similar measures.

Shutting down death row makes financial sense. One analysis by the Palm Beach Post showed Florida spent an average of $24 million apiece for each of the 44 executions the state carried out between 1976 and 2000, and that enforcing the death penalty costs about $55 million a year.

What did the state get for that money? A heaping dose of uncertainty. Last month the state executed Wayne Tompkins, convicted of the 1983 murder of a Pinellas County teenager. But despite the fact that Tompkins' case had dragged on for more than 25 years, the state fought efforts to conduct further scientific tests that might have cast doubt on Tompkins' guilt. Attorneys for the Innocence Project of Florida, which took Tompkins' case, say they aren't even sure the bones identified as those of Lisa DeCarr have been accurately identified.

Society would have been just as safe had Tompkins been kept in prison for life. The state would have had a chance to test his conviction against the latest scientific evidence. And the state would not have spent millions to put him to death -- money that could have, instead, been allocated to more police officers to keep all Floridians safer.

In a time when Florida lawmakers are struggling with billions of dollars in budget deficits, lavishing money on an archaic, ineffective and error-prone means of punishment makes little sense. If lawmakers won't kill the death penalty because it's wrong, they should kill it because it costs too much.

An Editorial from the Daytona News-Journal Corporation. ® www.news-journalonline.com published 3/11/09

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