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We Can’t Afford the Death Penalty

New America Media, Commentary, Lance Lindsey Posted: Mar 04, 2009

From California to New York, dozens of newspapers are declaring that state governments can no longer afford the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., recently reported that the death penalty is too costly. Maryland spent $37 million per execution in the past 28 years. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution. California’s cost is $250 million per execution, according to a Los Angeles Times article cited in the report. These states are among 36 states that have the death penalty and, like nearly every state, are going through a financial crisis.

The outrageous price that taxpayers bear in order to kill a handful of prisoners has been thrown into sharp relief.

Legislators in New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Montana, New Hampshire, and Colorado are now calling for a repeal of capital punishment, not only to help balance budgets but as a necessary first step in redirecting scarce resources toward genuine public safety measures such as investigating unsolved homicides, community policing, modernizing crime labs, expanding mental health services and other more effective crime prevention programs.

As Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland, told the New York Times after showing that capital cases in his state cost three times as much as non-capital ones, "We can't afford that when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime."

Recognizing the grandstanding of so-called “tough on crime” politicians as hollow and self-serving, abolitionists have always been the foremost public safety advocates. The simplistic championing of the death penalty, they say, is not really about effective crime prevention, but more about political ambitions.

Jim Oppedahl, a former state court administrator of Helena, Montana, said recently: “There is simply no place for such an enormously expensive government program that accomplishes nothing. And on that criterion alone, the death penalty ought to die.”

From a global perspective, opposing the death penalty’s utter futility as a criminal justice tool is simply a matter of common sense. The majority of nations in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, and no Western democracy except the United States still kills its prisoners.

Here at home, more than 80 percent of all executions take place in the South. Given the fact that the latest FBI Uniform Crime report shows the highest murder rate in the United States to also be in the South, the argument for deterrence as a justification for the death penalty goes begging.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama challenged us. And with that we are called upon to replace the politics of cynicism and fearmongering with courageous leadership and a politics of conscience. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” said President Obama. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

With these words resonating within us, we insist that those very ideals must apply to our criminal justice system as well.

It is utterly irresponsible to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to expand death rows when our schools, our health care, our environment, and everything we value in our communities face a slow painful demise. We must reject as false the choice between public safety and human rights. And we must not give up the ideal that justice without violence and revenge can be achieved in our lifetime.

Lance Lindsey is executive director of Death Penalty Focus.

Related Articles:

As Mexico Reels from Violence, Views on Crime and Punishment Harden

Reflections On Punishment

Lethal Injection Ruling Will Have Limited Impact

The Unseen, Uncounted Casualties of the Death Penalty

The Ritual of Executions

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