Charles M. Harris: Why Florida should abolish the death penalty

april 18 2012 source :

Wake up, Florida. We have been sold a pig in the poke. If what we got is not totally defective, it is redundant and far less satisfactory than a comparable product which is efficient and cost effective.

I am, of course, talking about the death penalty and why it should be abolished.

It should be acknowledged that we have two death sentences in Florida; death by execution and death by prison. Both accomplish the same purpose: the condemned will never leave prison alive. Further, it is far from certain which sentence will be carried out first.

This article is in opposition is to the death by execution alternative and is based on the law as it now is and will continue to be, and not on the law as it was in some bygone era when a death sentence was imposed within a reasonable time following the conviction. This article does not urge that we end the death penalty on either moral or religious grounds. Others can better speak to that. And although it is of great concern, and should concern all Floridians, this article does not urge the end the death penalty based on the fact that innocent people may be executed under out present system(we have had more people exonerated and released from our death row than any other state, 25.) That issue is beyond the scope of this article.

My opposition is based on more practical grounds: First, the death penalty is not needed since the legislature adopted the life in prison without parole alternative. This was a wise action taken by the legislature but it has rendered death by execution redundant and the amount we spend on it wasted. Second, death by execution is excessively expensive. Most people who support the death penalty believe it is more cost effective than life in prison. Perhaps at one time, when executions were swift and sure, this may have been the case. It is not now. Most people knowledgeable about the subject will agree that the delay now built into the system, more trial preparation, much longer time to get to trial, much longer jury selections and trials, much more complicated and far more frequent appeals, and continuous motions, have increased the cost of capital punishment so that it is now many times the cost of keeping a prisoner in prison for life.

One study have shown that it costs Florida $51 million per year more to support the death penalty than the costs of keeping our murderers in prison for life (Death Penalty Information Center). For example, it costs the state more than $10 million annually to fund the Capital Collateral lawyers who represent those who have been sentenced to death only after the sentence is entered, and this expense must be paid whether or not here is an execution.

The high cost of executions in California caused one of the sponsors who brought about reintroduction of the death penalty there and who is now leading the effort to end it to say: “Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?” (New York Times, April 7, 2012).

Quite obviously, a large amount of the money spent on capital punishment goes for legal expenses. That should not be criticized. Proper legal representation of the accused, particularly those sentenced to death, is an essential element of due process. The only way to end the enormous expense is to end the unnecessary reason for it. The $51 million listed as the extra expense for the death penalty is the annual cost of retaining the death penalty apparatus whether or not we have any executions. If it costs that much just to be able to execute someone, what does each execution cost us? The Miami Herald published an article in 1988 stating that it cost $3.2 million to execute a condemned person but only $750,000 to house a prisoner in prison for life. Both of these figures, of course, have increased over the past twenty plus years as indicated by the study mentioned above.

We have averaged two executions per year over the past decade. If we take the $51 million we spend annually merely to be in a position to execute someone and divide it by the two executions we normally have each year, the cost would be about $25 million each.

What do we get for our money? If the death penalty is not a deterrent, and it is not, and if the death penalty does not make us safer, and it does not, then it is only high-cost revenge. There are those who look at Ted Bundy, DannyRolling and Aileen Wuornus and say that at least they won’t kill again. It is unlikely that they would have killed again in any event while confined forever to their 12-by-7 foot cell, but more importantly to the issue of the death penalty being a deterrent is the fact that although Florida has had the death penalty for many generations, these serial killers murdered almost a score of our citizens before they were caught. They were not deterred by the threat of death.

Law enforcement officers, or at least the chiefs of police, seems to realize the futility of the death penalty or at least believe that the money spent on it can be better spent. A recent survey of police chiefs found that a lack of resources and drug/alcohol abuse tied for what most interferes with effective law enforcement. Of the nine categories, insufficient use of the death penalty was a distant last.

Why would anyone ignore the death penalty while considering killing someone? The answer is that the potential killer, for good reason, does not think the death penalty will apply to him. As Justice Brennan said in his Furman concurring opinion: “Proponents of this argument (that the death penalty is a deterrent) necessarily admit that its validity depends upon the existence of a system in which the punishment of death is inevitably and swiftly imposed. Our system, of course, satisfies neither condition. A rational person contemplating a murder…is confronted, not with the certainty of a speedy death, but with the slightest possibility that he will be executed in the distant future.”

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