Sunday, 23 November 2008

Abolishing the Death Penalty in the Era of Hope

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.


dudleysharp said...

Honest assesments are important.

In comparing the cost of death penalty cases to other sentences, the studies are woefully incomplete.

Generally, such studies have one or more of the following problems.

1) All studies exclude the cost of geriatric care, recently found to be $69,000/inmate/yr. A significant omission from life sentence costs.

2) All studies exclude the cost savings of the death penalty, which is the ONLY sentence which allows for a plea bargain to a maximum life sentence. Such plea bargains accrue as a cost benefit to the death penalty, such benefit being the cost of trials and appeals for every such plea bargain. The cost savings would be for trial and appeals, an amount estimated to be at least $1 million per case. Depending upon jurisdiction, this may result in a zero net cost for the death penalty, depending on the number of plea bargains Vs the number of death penalty trials, or an actual net cost benefit.

3) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds that executions result in a huge cost benefit to society. "Specifically, it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). Assuming that the value of human life is approximately $5 million {i.e. the average of the range estimates provided by Viscussi (1993)}, our estimates imply that society avoids losing approximately $70 million per year on average at the current rate of execution all else equal." The study used state level data from 1978 to 1997 for all 50 states (excluding Washington D.C.). (1)

That is a cost benefit of $70 million per execution. 6 additional, recent studies support the deterrent effect. Deterrence report upon request.

No cost study has included such calculations.

Although we find it inappropriate to put a dollar value on life, evidently this is not uncommon for economists, insurers, etc.

We know that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. There is no doubt that executions do save innocent lives. What value do you put on the lives saved? Certainly not less than $5 million.

4) a) Some studies compare the cost of a death penalty case, including pre trial, trial, appeals and incarceration, to only the cost of incarceration for 40 years, excluding all trial costs and appeals, for a life sentence. The much cited Texas "study" does this. Hardly an apples to apples cost comparison.
b) The pure deception in some cost "studies" is overt. It has been claimed that it costs $3.2 million/execution in Florida. That "study" decided to add the cost of the entire death penalty system in Florida ($57 million), which included all of the death penalty cases and dividing that number by only the number of executions (18). One could just have easily stated that the cost of the estimated 200 death row inmates was $285,000 per case.

5) There is no reason for death penalty appeals to take longer than 7 years. All death penalty appeals, direct and writ, should travel through the process concurrently, thereby giving every appellate issue 7 years of consideration through both state and federal courts. There is no need for endless repetition and delay. It currently takes about 12 years for appeals. A 5 year reduction in time, enforcement of the concurrent path for appeals and the end of repetitive appeals would save $200,000 per death penalty case.

Judges are the most serious roadblock in timely resolution. They can and do hold up cases, inexcusably, for long periods of time. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, by far, takes over 10 years, on average, to execute murderers. However, the state and federal courts, for that jurisdiction, handle many cases. Texas has the second lowest rate of the courts overturning death penalty cases. Could every other jurisdiction process appeals in 7-10 years. Of course, if the justices would allow it.

6) If a state is considering an execution moratorium, such costs should be included. All studies exclude the cost of a moratorium. A moratorium will add approximately $20,000/yr/inmate for a state's expenditures, for those inmates not executed during that period.

7) The main reason sentences are given is because jurors find that it is the most just punishment available. No state, concerned with justice, will base a decision on cost alone. If they did, all cases would be plea bargained and every crime would have a probation option.

Many more errors and omissions can be identified. The bottom line is that there are currently no studies which give us a true picture of the cost of death penalty cases Vs a maximum life sentence for equivalent cases.

There may be a cost benefit for the death penalty.

At the very least, with just this partial list of errors and omissions found in current death penalty studies, no one can use the cost issue as a reason for saving a jurisdiction money or for an execution moratorium.

1). "State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder", Paul R. Zimmerman (, March 3. 2003, Social Science Research Network,

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

dudleysharp said...

71% in the US find that the death penalty is applied about right or is not applied enough. This was the polling result within the same poll that found 63% support for the death penalty for murder.

Ms. Rusr-Tierney also misrinterpreted that death penalty support was even lower whem alternatives were presented.

Distortion: Death Penalty vs Life Without Parole Polls

When responding to this question: “If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole?”, Gallup found

47% for the death penalty, 48% for life without parole, (Gallup, May 2006).

Some, including Gallup and Quinnipiac, speculate that this represents lower support for the death penalty. Such improper speculation cannot be justified and is an unethical use of pollsters opinion.

Neither respondent group is saying do away with the other sanction or that they oppose the other sanction.

What is does mean is that 95% of US citizens support the death penalty and/or life without parole for murderers. It could also mean that 85% of all respondents support both sanctions.

For example, “Which do you think is better - vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream?” 50% prefer chocolate, 45% vanilla. However, 85% actually like both vanilla and chocolate ice cream - with a slightly lower percentage liking vanilla, marginally less. 99% of respondents don’t want either ice cream banned. 1% were undecided.

Also, this Gallup question is highly prejudicial, which wrongly influence the answers. This has become commonplace.

First, “absolutely” no possibility of parole doesn’t exist.

What is absolute is that the executive branch can reduce sentences and the legislature can change the laws and make them retroactive, if it benefits the criminal, thereby offering two avenues for parole in “absolutely” no-parole cases.

Therefore, the polling question offers a false premise which, obviously, distorts the answers. Gallup has been made aware of this for some time.

Secondly, by law it cannot be a choice of either only a death sentence or only a life sentence, as Gallup wrongly poses. Constitutionally, the death penalty cannot be mandatory. Therefore, at least two sentencing options must always be provided to jurors in a death penalty eligible case.

Gallup did not ask this their misleading question in 2007. I hope they did it because of theses error issues and will not resume it or mention it in the future.

The proper questions might be, IF you are searching for a true life vs execution choice,:

For (specific case) murderers, do you prefer the punishment options of
1) The death penalty or life without parole? or
2) Life without parole, only, or lesser sentences, excluding a death sentence in all cases?

Furthermore, this has the benefit of reflecting reality, as opposed to the distorted fiction of Gallup’s (and others’) current life vs death questions. The death penalty cannot be a punishment option, without also having life or other options and the death penalty is case specific.

95% of US citizens suppor the death penalty and/or life without parole. As the US systems offers both in capital cases, we have the most democratice of sanctions options.