DEATH PENALTY ISSUES
The history of the death penalty is a long and brutal one. From the stoning and crucifixion killings of the B.C. era to today’s methods of the electric chair and lethal injection, governments of one kind or another have sentenced people to death for thousands of years.
While most of the free world has abolished the death penalty, many of the states within this country continue to use capital punishment in their criminal justice systems. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court suspended the imposition of the penalty, finding it unconstitutional because it was imposed disproportionately on minorities and the poor. The ban was brief. The Court approved new statutes in 1976, and government-sponsored killings resumed.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the most common method of execution among states with the death penalty is lethal injection, which is authorized by 35 states, as well as the U.S. Military and the U.S. Government. Smaller numbers of states continue to use methods such as electrocution, gas chambers, hanging, and even firing squads.
The death penalty debate is a heated one in this country today. Many proponents of the death penalty argue that it deters criminals from killing. However, research does not support the idea that the possibility of receiving the death penalty deters criminals from committing murder. In fact, studies by the Death Penalty Information Center show that murder rates tend to be higher in the South (where the imposition of the death penalty is the highest) compared to the Northeast United States (where the death penalty is less commonly applied).
As innocence projects across the country can attest to, the criminal justice system does not always get it right – even for the most heinous of crimes. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 150 exonerations of death row inmates since 1973. Unfortunately, the system is not perfect, and sometimes people are wrongfully convicted. This means we as a society run the risk of executing an innocent person as long as the death penalty is in place. For example, the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 despite strong evidence of his innocence, including forensic evidence.
The impact of wrongful convictions on a state’s death row law was clearly seen in Illinois. In 2000, Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on the penalty after 13 men had been exonerated from death row since 1977. In 2011, after the state conducted extensive studies, Governor Pat Quinn signed a law that abolished the penalty.
The cost of the death penalty is extraordinary. California has spent more than $4 billion administering the death penalty since 1978, or more than $300 million per person for each of the 13 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated. Conversely, it costs approximately $200,000 to $300,000 to convict and sentence an individual to life without the possibility of parole. If those sentenced to death received life sentences instead, we accomplish the same deterrent effect of the death penalty: criminals remain off the streets for the rest of their lives. The money saved could be spent on improving the criminal justice system such as increasing public safety or providing resources to help prevent wrongful convictions.
Is it effective? The answer is no. It does not deter crime, and it is extremely expensive to administer. Ultimately, while most of the people who are incarcerated – on death row or otherwise – are guilty, we know there are innocent people in prison. It is not worth the risk of executing an innocent person.
In November of 2016, California voters have the opportunity to end the death penalty through the initiative process. Alternatively, a competing measure seeks to speed up the process.