On March 10, the Judiciary Committee of Connecticut’s General Assembly approved HR 6012, a bill to abolish the death penalty. This comes at a time when capital punishment has stepped into the spotlight of political discourse. As Connecticut abolitionist activists work to pass a ban in time to commute the sentence of Michael Ross, who is scheduled to die in May, many Americans applaud the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to rule the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional.
To me, the death penalty is fundamentally flawed in principle. When the government, a fallible human institution, deliberately takes the life of one of its citizens, the cycle of violence simply continues. Far from bringing the peace it promises, the death penalty legitimizes violence as a solution.
Even if you believe that the death penalty can be warranted and justified in principle, the reality of its actual application makes it problematic to defend in practice. First, the death penalty as an institution tends to amplify societal prejudices and disparities. According to Amnesty International, African Americans make up about 50 percent of murder victims, yet over 80 percent of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims. Furthermore, 95 percent of all death row inmates cannot afford an attorney. Recently, researchers at Loyola University devised a computer program that, using only non-judicial variables such as race and sex, can predict the outcome of death sentencing more than 90 percent of the time. When a computer can predict a case’s outcome based only on a defendant’s demographic identification, something is wrong.
From a practical standpoint, abolishing the death penalty would save the public money during times of increasingly tight budgets. Recent studies suggest that execution may cost as much as three times as much as life imprisonment. Conventional wisdom tends to attribute these higher costs to expensive appeals. Even if this were the case, we could not in good conscience cut this appeals process because, as an execution is irreversible, the execution of an innocent is always a possibility. Since 1973, more than 100 people have been released from death row after proving their innocence. This is too close for comfort, so cutting the appeals process is not a viable solution.
In fact, most of the death penalty’s costs come before the post-conviction proceedings. Even if we cut the opportunities for appeal, capital punishment would still cost us more than alternatives.
The higher expense makes execution an unsustainable policy given that the death penalty has no statistical value as a deterrent. In fact, states and counties where executions take place tend to maintain higher crime rates than other areas. This makes sense if we follow the flow of funding in light of recent fiscal problems: With a considerably higher drain on public monies than life imprisonment, the application of the death penalty deprives law enforcement budgets of needed funding.
Evaluating the death penalty solely in terms of dollars seems flippant given the emotional and ethical stakes involved on both sides of the issue. We should not take the loss of a human life lightly, and we should always extend this principle foremost to the victims of violent crime and to their families.
I can only begin to imagine the pain and anguish involved with losing a loved one, someone special, someone with dreams, someone who means very much, to murder. Nonetheless, execution will never solve the problem.
Proponents of the death penalty often claim that the families of victims need an execution for closure, that the death of the murderer will bring healing. Too often, this is not the case.
The death penalty often prevents true closure. Speaking as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Robert Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1998, said, “As one victim, as a colleague, I stand before you to ask that you vote to abolish the death penalty, not so much because I want murderers to live but because if the state kills them, that forever forecloses the possibility that those of us who are victims might be able to figure out how to forgive. We’ve lost enough already. Don’t take that option for healing away, please.”
Edward Dunar is a freshman in Branford College and a member of the Coalition to End the Death Penalty.