The outcome of the election for President, and for state and local legislators, not only demonstrates how much Americans want change. It confirms Americans' commitment to our fundamental values of equality and fairness. It gives me reason to hope that we will soon see the end of the death penalty.
The American public simply cannot maintain the death penalty and be true to these deeply held values. There are too many instances of innocent men and women being sentenced to death, of people of color, both defendants and victims, being treated more harshly, and dealt with as if they were expendable.
This is why New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007, and why we fully expect other states will follow.
Americans can't square our values of what is right and lawful with the operation of the death penalty in practice. As we learn more about it, support for the death penalty has dropped over the years, to 63%. Support declines even further when we learn about alternatives to the death penalty, and are given the opportunity to choose life rather than death.
With the current economic downturn, all government programs -- including the death penalty -- should and will be evaluated on whether they deliver on their promises and whether the "benefits" they confer are worth the cost. Measured against this stricter standard, the death penalty comes up short. Having failed to deliver on the promise of accurately selecting only the guilty to receive the punishment, it also fails miserably at being cost efficient, and worse, it siphons precious resources from helping crime victims heal and move on with their lives, or preventing the tragedy of murder from occurring in the first place.
Americans would be appalled to discover how much of their tax dollars support the flawed, ineffective death penalty system. For example, it costs Florida $51 million a year to enforce the death penalty above what it would cost to sentence first degree murderers to life in prison without parole. Imagine how that money could be spent on better ways to ensure public safety, such as hiring and training more police to protect our neighborhoods, and enabling them to purchase the equipment they need to do so, such as updated patrol cars, and more efficient information technology systems,
As newly elected and incumbent state legislators take their seats in statehouses next year, they should remember that constituents expect them to provide leadership and creative thinking on a range of social problems, including criminal justice reform and the death penalty. To paraphrase one commentator's post-election analysis, Americans want a more pragmatic and concrete approach to our nation's problems, not rhetoric and symbolic nods in that direction.
An honest assessment of the problems associated with the death penalty is long overdue. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and its more than 100 affiliates looks forward to engaging state legislators in a reasoned, thoughtful discussion about capital punishment and its alternatives.
Diann Rust-Tierney is the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.