Sunday, 20 January 2008

Less money, more pain and injustice

Less money, more pain and injustice

Special to the Star-Telegram

Last month, New Jersey's legislature and governor replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole. The measure has been hailed as an historic moment across the country. I guess that makes sense, because no state had legislatively abolished its death penalty in more than 50 years.

But I want to share the view from where I sit: a police chief who long supported the death penalty. Watching this debate evolve over the years and then unexpectedly being caught up in the middle of it, I don't think the vote was historic at all. It was just plain common sense.

I am the police chief of West Orange, N.J., an older suburban town about 15 miles outside of Manhattan. I am a proud Republican. I have dedicated my life to protecting the public and making our streets safer. And I put my life on the line every time I go to work. Believe me, sympathy for killers is nowhere in my vocabulary.

Last year, the New Jersey Legislature set up a study commission to decide what to do with the death penalty. The capital punishment system was broken; some people wanted to fix it, while others wanted to abolish it.

I was asked to join the commission and help decide what to do. I pledged to keep an open mind, but I always supported the death penalty, and I didn't expect that to change. If there were fixes we could recommend to make it work better, I figured I could support that.

I was wrong.

I no longer believe that you can fix the death penalty. Six months of study opened my eyes to its shocking reality. I learned that the death penalty throws millions of dollars down the drain -- money that I could be putting directly to work fighting crime every day -- while dragging victims' families through a long and torturous process that only exacerbates their pain.

I want to share what I learned from the families whose loved ones were lost, because I believe their untold stories are the shameful, hidden secret of the death penalty.

One by one they came before me -- mothers, fathers, children and spouses. Their cries of pain were devastating.

The judicial process sentences victims' families to an indeterminate time in legal limbo, waiting, waiting, waiting, for the day that the punishment will be carried out. For most of them, it never will be. The death penalty was supposed to help families like these. Virtually everything I heard told me that the process was tearing them apart.

Meanwhile, maintaining this charade of a system for the past 30 years cost New Jersey almost a quarter billion dollars -- money that could have been providing these victims with crucial services to help them heal, or funding law enforcement and preventing the crimes in the first place. The prosecutors who sat on the commission with me confirmed through direct experience that capital cases deplete their resources more than any other type of case. Studies in other states found the same thing.

As a police chief, I find this use of state resources offensive. The death penalty is supposed to help me fight crime. I say: Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I'll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn't anywhere on my list.

The problems we found are not unique to New Jersey. No state has found a way to carry out the death penalty quickly and cheaply and also accurately.

In my heart, I still believe that capital punishment is justified in some cases. But I also know that in real life, there is no perfect death penalty, and in practice, it does more harm than good. Life in prison without parole is a better alternative. It is harsh, it ensures public safety, and it puts victims' families first.

James Abbott is the chief of police in West Orange, N.J. He was a member of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.

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