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Death penalty is costly and ineffective no matter the case

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa Senate Republicans recently proposed to reinstate the state's death penalty for those who kill a child in commission with rape or kidnapping.

Senate File 2095 is not fiscally viable, is not the most effective means of determent, and will not provide the most severe means of punishment in the eyes of the criminal. For these reasons, the bill should hardly be considered and will, hopefully, be killed early in its development.

While one might think that killing a prisoner would be less expensive than housing the same person for remainder of her or his life, exactly the opposite is true. In New Jersey, the death penalty was found to cost taxpayers an additional $253 million over a 20-year period. In federal court death-penalty cases, the average cost is nearly eight times that of a murder case not seeking the death penalty. The total cost of Indiana's death penalty was 38 percent greater than comparable cases not carrying out the capital sentence.

California's death penalty was found to cost the state $137 million per year — an estimation considered to be conservative. An alternative proposal imposing a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole, by comparison, is projected to cost $11.5 million per year — roughly 8 percent of the current cost.

SAFE California is an organization pushing a proposal to mandate life in prison without parole as the maximum penalty.

"Public opinion has shifted in the past several years, and when voters consider the total cost of the death penalty, they are more likely to support replacing the death penalty with life in prison with no chance of parole," said Ana Camaora, an assistant campaign manager of the SAFE California campaign. "… (W)hile we funnel millions of dollars into the death penalty, we let other things go to the wayside. For instance, in California unsolved murder and unsolved rape, nearly 46 percent of murders go unsolved and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved each year while we funnel millions of dollars in a death penalty that doesn't really execute people."

Camaora noted that only 13 people have been executed in the state since the law's reinstatement while 720 others wait on death row.

S.F. 2095 would likely be even less cost-effective per sentence, as it applies to a narrow range of crimes but still requires several inherent costs, such as more costly trials, appeals required to be heard by the Supreme Court, as well as specialized housing costs.

Proponents of the bill argue that the death penalty will act as the ultimate determent to committing murder. This assumes, of course, that the death penalty is the ultimate penalty — but this also is not the case. Recent research suggests that a timely death may be preferred by inmates rather than life in prison.

A 2008 report published in the Prison Journal surveyed convicted inmates and asked whether they preferred the death penalty to life in prison without parole. The results were split down the middle, with many responding to be indifferent between the two.

In January, ABC News reported that the number of inmates in effect requesting execution tripled between 1980 and 2002. In the article, the reporter detailed the efforts of South Carolina appellate attorney Joe Savitz, who wished to prevent the state from executing a man convicted of killing his child.

"He does not see the death sentence as punishment. He sees it as an escape from punishment," Savitz said. "He believes that he will be reunited with his first wife and the child that he killed, Maggie. He wants to die and has gotten the state to help him carry it out in what is essentially a state-assisted suicide. He is not doing this because he feels a sense of remorse."

The preference of death to life in prison is also evidenced by elevated suicide rates among death-row inmates — who are most often supervised to the highest extent. The suicide rate for the general prison population is approximately 32 per 100,000 inmates, according to the National Institute of Corrections. The death-row suicide rate was found to be 113 per 100,000 inmates by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, which means death row inmates are 250 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general inmate population.

The death penalty is both an ineffective deterrent to violent crime and is incredibly cost-inefficient. Our funds would be better put to use in other areas, such as education, mental health, and law enforcement — all of which have been proven to deter violent crime.

"We often hear the death penalty is needed to keep us safe, but that is not the case in California. In California, we believe that our resources are better spent preventing crime and solving crime," said Camaora. "The most effective way of preventing crime is to solve it."


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